The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined 2016, Barbican Centre

Discover the challenging and utterly compelling question of how fashion revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is the first exhibition to foreground the challenging but at the same time utterly compelling question of how fashion revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste. Conceived by fashion curator and exhibition maker Judith Clark in collaboration with the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, the exhibition takes Phillips’s definitions of ‘the vulgar’ as its starting point. Drawn from public and private collections, with contributions from leading modern and contemporary designers, the exhibition presents pieces spanning 500 years of fashion, from the Renaissance to present day, weaving together historic dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion, textile ornamentation, manuscripts, photography and film.

Experiencing The Vulgar
Potent, provocative and sometimes shocking, the word vulgar conjures up strong images, ideas and feelings in us all. In The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, you are invited to think again about exactly what makes something vulgar and why it is such a sensitive and contested term. Join us for a tour of the Barbican Art Gallery as we experience ‘vulgarity’ in all its forms and hear from some of the designers featured in The Vulgar, including Walter van Beirendonck, Manolo Blahnik, Hussein Chalayan, Stephen Jones, Christian Lacroix and Zandra Rhodes.

The vulgar exposes through imitation
‘The vulgar, like fashion, is always a copy. It invites us to imagine the original and exposes what has been lost in translation. In this way, the vulgar restores our confidence in the purity of the source. So the only that that interests us about the about the vulgar is what’s wrong with it, because it is pretending to be something that it is not. Vulgarity is wanting something that you can’t be, or can’t have.’ Adam Phillips

In 1983, Yves Saint Laurent was the first living designer to have a major exhibition dedicated to his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Perhaps the most iconic piece in that exhibition was his Mondrian dress made almost twenty years earlier, which, due to its translation of the original Mondrian canvas, fuelled the debate around the place of fashion in the museum, and came to embody the cries against it. The exhibition, as all exhibitions of fashion, was seen to be ‘advertising’ a commercial concern. The dress, with its own legacy of copies, still prompts a debate about fashion’s originality and value, both inside the museum and outside of it.

The vulgar reveals taste as prejudice
‘In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Bible was translated—vulgarized—into English and other vernacular languages, and could then be understood and spoken about freely. Literate people could read it for themselves. There could be as many understandings of the Bible as there were readers. Access could create anarchy…In Renaissance Sumptuary Laws, in etiquette books, in dress codes, in fashion magazines, in gossip, vulgar is a term used by the guardians of taste. And the vulgar becomes fashionable when the guardians of taste are in disarray. Vulgarity is then taste out of order.’ Adam Phillips

The vulgar and the fashionable have to keep an eye on each other
‘Vulgarity is always more of something, never less: it exaggerates; it never understates; it performs; it never retreats. It is committed to enjoyment… It always reminds us of what is missing; it draws attention to what it lacks. It has no other worldly desires. It is a self-cure for the fear of impoverishment. It acts out the scandal of entitlement, the pleasures it represents and the envy it creates. It is the theatre of ambition and kitsch is its celebration. It both fears and courts ridicule. Puritanism is its foil and its target.’ Adam Phillips

The vulgar is a form of longing
‘The vulgar tongue is the common language, the native language, the language ‘we’ speak. It is local and indigenous, like national or traditional dress. So, why would we be suspicious of, or amused by, a language that everyone could speak, and what would we be suspicious of? Vulgarity amuses us because it makes us uneasy…The vulgar are mean, gross, brash, gauche, tasteless, kitsch, coarse, pretentious, camp, rough, rude, common and so on – and that is how they speak. It is only ever other people who are vulgar…Everyone has a tongue but not everyone has, or has to have, a vulgar tongue.’ Adam Phillips

The vulgar as access
‘The vulgar is something we make. Nothing is naturally, or essentially, or in itself, vulgar. Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…The vulgar always make us wonder whether they are having more pleasure than we are. The vulgar are enjoying when they should be admiring. The vulgar are showing off when they should be showing some respect. Perhaps we think of pleasure as vulgar. There are no vulgar fears. Bodies are transformed into the vulgar through description and adornment: clothing, jewellery and cosmetics. And because it is an art of over-emphasis—playing with scale and proportion and ostentation—the vulgar requires a different kind of attention to detail…Vulgarization is a radical art because it distracts as much as it coerces attention.’ Adam Phillips

How might clothes exaggerate a body? By making it fake and transposing the chosen body part onto the dress, what happens to it? Vivienne Westwood’s painted exposed breasts have the shock of Punk defiance. The even more daring topless bathing costume from 1964—shown for the first time in Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1971—was, we read in the museum notes, displayed pinned to an exhibition board, thereby denying it a body.

Vulgarity is the sign of an impossible ambition
‘When the word ‘vulgar’ is not used to describe ‘the mob’, ‘the masses’, the ‘common people’, it is used to describe people who are trying to be something that they are not. And because they aspire to something that they feel excluded from, they represent for us the impostor, the con man, the spy, the actor… The arrivistes, the nouveau riche, the immigrants, the upwardly mobile: all those who aspire to participate, to succeed, to adapt could be accused of vulgarity… Vulgarity is the ambition that makes a mockery of ambition. It is the aspiration that overexposes what it aspires to.’ Adam Phillips

Classification is considered essential to museum collections and their project of accumulating knowledge. The pieces collected here question classification, in terms of time, place and order. The designs allude to former, more glorious historic codes of dress and to social classes above those of the wearer (a commoner wearing a crown for example, or wearing insignia that they are not entitled to, or they are unable to decipher). The dresses suggest through their precious gold patina a value beyond the commercial. They also, by virtue of being held in museum collections, aspire to a different kind of cultural status. Fashion is still an aspiring category within the museum.

The vulgar is a secret compromise between good and bad taste
‘Like ‘too fashionable’, ‘too popular’ means ‘too available’. We are suspicious of people and things that are ‘too popular’, as though ‘too popular’ means ‘too eager to please’, ‘too opportunistic’, ‘too servile’, ‘too hidden’, ‘too cheap’. ‘Too available’ as a sexual definition is always a term of abuse. Anybody or anything that, like money, passes through too many hands, is vulgar.We want to dissociate ourselves from it. It is degraded and degrading, as though there are too many bodies involved, and bodies are contagious. As though we could lose ourselves in the crowd, and not find anything else we might want. ‘We’ wouldn’t know who ‘we’ are without the vulgar.’ Adam Phillips

The vulgar draws something to our attention
‘If we always know the vulgar when we see it, how do we know it?…When we think we understand it we still don’t like it. Or if we really enjoy it, we don’t understand quite what we are enjoying. …We are amused by it, or appalled by it, or enjoy it without giving it a second thought. As though we fear something might happen if we allow ourselves to be interested or curious; as though the vulgar had some dangerous allure…The vulgar is like a blindspot – it has found a way to stop us thinking about it. Just as we don’t really know what it is about a joke that amuses us, we don’t really know what is vulgar about vulgarity. Adam Phillips

The vulgar is trying not to be original
‘In its earliest uses, ‘common’ was distinguished from ‘aristocratic’. It was used to describe the shared, the ordinary and the vulgar. It described the communal within a class system, a contradiction in terms. So it has been all too commonly used as a derogatory term. Vulgarity exploits the difference between the common and what we have in common. It turns the tables. It turns fashion into uniform.’ Adam Phillips

The vulgar is failure as success
‘As the scapegoat of good taste, the vulgar does a lot of work for us. And like all scapegoats, it must not inspire us. It encodes and carries our disowned pleasures and fears. It represents whatever it is about beauty that we can’t bare. It is the exception we use to prove the rules, the failure we need to insure our success. The vulgar is there to be punished. …Vulgarity guarantees nothing. The vulgar as an uncompleted action, as an experiment, as a testing of the audience, may be more promising than its many alternatives.’ Adam Phillips

From Renaissance to the present day, explore some of the rooms from ‘The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined’ at the Barbican Art Gallery to get close to the vulgarity on display…