Are fashion and bad taste connected terms? A recent exhibition is about to find out, showing us things as vulgar as they can be.
Exhibitions devoted to fashion are usually based on one period of time, a designer, or a famous individual(s), like Michael Jackson, the Queen, or David Bowie. Such events aren’t usually based on a concept or a word, but this one breaks the rules. We present to you the Barbican’s “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” show.
The event was organized with the help of two extraordinary people: the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the fashion museologist Judith Clark. They say that the event is as much about fashion as taste as it is about language. It’s about what people connect with the word “vulgar” nowadays, and whether the modern fashion is in the list. Or as Phillips puts it, echoing her turn of phrase, “I think people will come to the exhibition in a state of conviction, and hopefully not leave it in a state of conviction.”
Miuccia Prada says she is obsessed with the ‘racchio’, the ugly
Vulgar is a notoriously slippery word, even in its origins; it’s been troubling Phillips and Clark, they tell me, since they collaborated on The Concise Dictionary of Dress for the contemporary art commissioning body Artangel in 2010. (One can only imagine how highfalutin the breakfast-table conversations are at their house.)
Taken from the Latin vulgus, meaning the common people, “vulgar” was initially synonymous with ordinary; customary; in general use. That changed in the 17th century, Phillips says. “‘Vulgar’ began to mean what we now take it to mean, ‘A person not reckoned to belong to good society . . . coarsely commonplace; lacking in refinement or good taste.’ The shift from the vulgar being the common, to the vulgar being the disdained, is very interesting.”
All of which means what in terms of an exhibition? A gloriously multifarious mash-up of pieces, brought together for their diverse resonances with the subject in hand. It makes for an experience that is more about visual clashes than coherence, and deliberately so. The curators aren’t telling us what they think is vulgar — “we set out not to judge, ever, within the exhibition”, Clark says — but they want us to question what we consider vulgar, and why. As Phillips observes: “Vulgar is an inscription. Nothing is inherently vulgar.”
Here, then, is vulgarity in the sense of an ostentatious display of wealth, like the 18th-century mantua dress with its skirt more than 2m wide, or the remarkable Elsa Schiaparelli concoction of gold-braids-and-nothing-else from 1937 (Rapunzel made manifest; a fairytale gown if ever there was one).
There’s also vulgarity, however, in the sense of a deliberate crudeness or “wrongness”, as explored by many contemporary designers. This can be extreme, as with Vivienne Westwood’s Eve bodysuit of 1989 (flesh-coloured mesh with a single acrylic fig leaf covering the pudenda), or Jeremy Scott’s ultra-blinged-up rapper garb for his first Moschino collection in 2014. Or it might be more subtle, like Prada’s use of underwear as outerwear — in crystal-encrusted bras worn over dresses and coats in that same year, or visible waspies in the brand’s 2016 autumn/winter collection. (When I interviewed Miuccia Prada she told me she was obsessed with the “racchio”, the ugly. Playing with what is beauty and what is beastly has long been her label’s animating force.)
Then there is vulgar as in commonplace, like the traditional costumes of the working woman of Arles, France — the so-called Arlésienne — all hooded capes and floral sprigging. A quartet of these have been set alongside their extravagant reincarnations at the hand of Christian Lacroix, which in turn serve as a reminder of the French couturier’s unique talent — the pages from his sketchbook on display are a joy to behold. “I am inspired by everything, especially what is called bad taste,” Lacroix says in one of the filmed conversations included in the show. “It is a treasure for me.”
Appropriation too can be seen as a vulgar act, especially when the matter in hand is “high art”. So here is Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Mondrian dress of 1965, which, as Phillips observes, “is both incredibly elegant and incredibly kitsch, a total parody of something, but also the real thing”. It’s a piece with extra resonance for Clark, a self-confessed “exhibition history junkie”. “For me it’s the painting, the dress, the copy of the painting, but it’s also Diana Vreeland being criticised for putting Saint Laurent in the Met.”
This, you see, was one of the dresses that appeared in the former Vogue editor’s groundbreaking retrospective of the French designer’s oeuvre in 1983, the first show to present modern fashion rather than historic costume. (The first fashion exhibition, curated by Cecil Beaton, was only 12 years before that, at the V&A.)
What was the art establishment’s verdict on the Saint Laurent exhibition at the time? That it was vulgar, of course — “the equivalent of turning gallery space over to General Motors for a display of Cadillacs”, according to the critic Robert Storr. So here is another sleight of hand by Clark. Here is a fashion exhibition that is about the history of fashion as a subject worthy of exhibition; about preconceptions around fashion itself.
Fashion has always existed at the fault line of vulgarity. People who have the luxury of buying clothes not just for practicality but for reasons to do with, well, fashion, have always made their choices out of a desire to display any number of things: their wealth; their cool; their class; the fact that they belong to one group and not to another. And that act of display has had to be carefully navigated. “Well-bred people do not often dress in what is called the ‘height of fashion’, as that is generally left to dandies and pretenders,” opined The Lady’s Book of Manners in the late 19th century.
That there is a tipping point at which an item denoting high value becomes too widely dispersed, and so no longer does so, is still the double bind with which every luxury fashion brand must contend. You want to sell as much of something as you can to be successful, but if you sell too much it can be your undoing. “Do we need to keep pleasures privileged in order to keep them as pleasures?” Phillips says. “Why can’t we all enjoy everything?”
What is striking about the contemporary inclusions in the show is the degree to which challenging taste — flirting with vulgarity — is such a motivator for today’s designers. Riffing on what has been declared bad or mere common-or-garden can be just another way to ensure exclusivity, otherness. Only those cool enough to “get it”, well, get it. Just ask Andy Warhol.
Take Chanel’s Warholian so-called supermarket collection from 2014, for example, for which the catwalk was turned into a giant food aisle, and models carried metal shopping baskets that had been “Chanel-ed” with the leather chains normally found on the brand’s extremely expensive handbags. Who in their right mind would spend thousands on a supermarket basket? Someone much cooler — among other things — than you or me. (Just to underline the postmodernity of it all, these pieces are showcased at the Barbican next to the exhibition shop.)
Models carried metal shopping baskets that had been ‘Chanel-ed’
“There is a kind of knowingness now,” Clark says. “We are questioning beauty, what is high and what is low. These sorts of equations have become much more sophisticated.” Of course they have. Designers these days can self-consciously engage with the vulgar in ways that their nameless antecedents — who served a far more stratified, if not calcified society — couldn’t. “In the 17th and 18th centuries there was tremendous status anxiety,” Phillips says. “Whether you were on the right side of taste and where that placed you in the social hierarchy was very powerful. The word ‘vulgar’ was used a surprising amount, because people wanted to disassociate themselves from it, to know that they were not vulgar.”
What does it reveal about society today that “vulgar” is used so little? Unlike other negatives — “wicked”, “sick” — here is a word that hasn’t been reinvented as a positive, but rather largely forgotten about, rendered almost antiquated? What’s more, unlike other archaic terms, somehow its charge hasn’t been neutralised. “Vulgar” — on the rare occasions that it is still used — is, as Phillips points out, “still pretty strong”.
It’s evidence of our unease around class, I think; part of our pretence that class doesn’t exist any more, and our awareness that it does. Clark recounts how a number of the designers she spoke to when working on the exhibition would “cite their mother’s use of the word, not their own. They would say it reminded them of their mother saying that such-and-such was vulgar. For them it was a generational thing. They had been taught the rules of the game back then, warned off certain things, but the word didn’t really belong to their generation.”
What the inspired cacophony of the Barbican exhibition illustrates is not only the degree to which those rules aren’t there as they once were, but also that we are not entirely free of them, nor perhaps ever will be. (“For years in fashion people have said anything goes,” Clark says. “You can wear your pyjamas to an opening, your evening gown to the supermarket. But the word ‘vulgar’ is persistent. It is not true that anything goes.”)
Both curators have set out to challenge vulgarity. “We are saying there is no bad taste, only taste, and here it is in all its brilliance,” Clark says. Yet it is Phillips who seems to see the notion as verging on tyrannous. It’s understandable, given the link to his own past. “I first came across the idea as a boy in Cardiff,” he recalls, “when I heard my parents talking about antisemites describing Jews as ‘vulgar’. It was clearly something you didn’t want to be.” He pauses. “To label something vulgar is to do with humiliation, fundamentally.” One can’t help suspecting that Phillips hopes this exhibition will serve as a kind of epitaph.
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), October 13 to February 5