Sexuality, excess, exaggeration, exposure — a new exhibition challenges the guardians of good taste
Vivienne Westwood’s print of bared bosoms, Chanel’s supermarket shoppers in sneakers, Galliano’s padded hips, and Manolo’s thigh-high boots for Rihanna — can high fashion sink much lower? All that is missing in this line-up of vulgarity is the Kardashian clan.
But is it as easy to define what is vulgar in the 21st century as it was in the days when the word was a simple translation from Latin? Vulgare once meant “ordinary people”. No judgement. Only later did the explanation evolve into a definition of showing off, bad taste, and crossing a barrier from the acceptable in fine society. Add today the kitsch and the camp.
A salmon-pink print suit from Walter Van Beirendonck's Spring/Summer 2016 menswear collection
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined (at London’s Barbican Art Gallery until 5 February 2017) is an eye-opener — especially in the case of the inflatable Stephen Jones hat blown-up to full-size for a John Galliano show. But also metaphorically, in the mental agility of co-curators Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. In words and fashion displays, they make a case beyond the easy answer that once-exclusive fashion is now for everybody.
“Vulgarity exposes the scandal of good taste,” announces Phillips in one of his smart phrases.
The drapery on ancient Greek statuary has influenced many designers, from Fortuny to Madame Grès to Karl Lagerfeld in his Crétoise (front left) and Casanova (front right) dresses for Chloé (Spring/Summer 1984)
So what is the true meaning of “vulgar”? Clark’s definitions add up to 11 separate categories. The curators start with copies of classicism, meaning nymphs re-imagined and illustrated by the ancient Greek-style draped dresses from Madame Grès and by Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé. More explicit displays include Vivienne Westwood’s “Eve” body suit with a plastic fig leaf at the crotch to preserve modesty.
I asked the curator why gracious drapes should be defined as vulgar?
“It’s the idea about whether a copy is always a diminution of something. ‘Vulgar’ is always thought of as a poor imitation, whereas we show loud and clear that it does not need to be,” Clark explained.
There's nothing but an embroidered figleaf on Vivienne Westwood's "Eve" bodysuit (left), from the "Voyage to Cythera" collection (1989), while Walter Van Beirendonck's outfit from 2009 features a muscled male bodystocking under transparent trousers
“Showing off” is a second category: the excessive, as overblown silhouettes from 18th-century “Mantua” dresses, requiring a sideways turn to get through the door; or huge gestures of grandeur from John Galliano’s Dior years. Add to this the rock-the-baroque decoration from Christian Lacroix or Jean Paul Gaultier and innovative sculptures as clothing from Iris van Herpen.
The outsize silhouettes of these 18th-century "Mantuas" (in the foreground) were the height of showing off wealth and privilege at the time
A laundry list of designers does not do justice to the exhibition’s broad sweep, which includes Miuccia Prada’s deliberate plays on body language with appliquéd external bras or mighty prints of female faces. They are played against the 18th-century embroidered bodices known as “stomachers” and covering just that body area. One of my favourite sections came under the headline “impossible ambition”, with labels from Galliano’s Dior to Undercover latching on to symbols of past glory. A Stephen Jones headpiece of religious cross and stars for Galliano is a prime example.
John Galliano's haute couture collection for Christian Dior, Spring/Summer 2005, referenced the Directoire style of post-revolutionary France
Interviews with designers both on video in the museum and in the catalogue (published by Koenig Books) include intriguing comments from Stephen Jones, Manolo Blahnik, Pam Hogg, Zandra Rhodes, and Walter Van Beirendonck.
For her “In The Heart of the Multitude" collection (Spring/Summer 2014), Miuccia Prada put bold prints of women' faces on shift dresses
The Belgian designer’s frankly sexual padded penis is as shocking as the Puritan lace collars are apparently innocent — except that Adam Phillips claims in the book that white lace against black dresses shows “vulgarity in the purity”.
An elephant outfit from Walter Van Beirendonck's "Take a Ride" collection (A/W 2010-2011) with an outsize hat by Stephen Jones
So what is the definition of “vulgar” today? I wonder if I agree with Sixties fashion queen Mary Quant when she claimed in 1967, “People call things vulgar when they are new to them.” Surely the mini skirts that she and André Courrèges invented were as much signals of sexual availability, reflecting the invention of the contraceptive pill, as they were fashion items?
Clark takes the story of the mini forward when she shows the famous Yves Saint Laurent couture dress that used the geometric lines of Piet Mondrian’s paintings (vulgarity as appropriation) beside a comercialised YSL ready-to-wear version in the Eighties.
Like the 16th- and 17th-century Puritans, John Galliano applied attractive frilled lace to a stark black dress in this 2009 dress for Dior
Conversely, I remember the often-quoted words from iconic US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland: “Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life... it’s got vitality.” She wrote in her autobiography: “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika... it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical — I think we could use more if it. No taste is what I am against.”
Visually, the show is not as complex as the different categories suggest. There are some flamboyant cross-overs, as evidenced by a recent, flower-embroidered Gucci suit from designer Alessandro Michele displayed on a platform against an 18th-century men’s outfit, while a glimmering Lacroix dress forms a background.
Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by Piet Mondrian for this ground-breaking shift dress in the Sixties (centre)
I asked Judith Clark, raised in Seventies Rome by Australian parents for the first 18 years of her life, whether she believed that she had been influenced by the Italian conflict of extravagance and purity, after she had described the experience of other mothers swishing to school in floor-length fur coats.
“My mother was more restrained and in a way I regretted that, because it was as though the others were getting pleasure from their excesses that my mother must have been uneasy about,” the curator said. “I loved experimenting, so I made my own clothes and when we came to London my sister and I would go and buy fabric and fashion our own kind of New Romantics outfits.”
A Vivienne Westwood "Tits" T-shirt from 2012 beside Rudi Gernreich's notorious "monokini" (a topless swimsuit) from 1964, which many credit for starting - or at least reflecting - the sexual revolution
The aim of this exhibition is evidently to make the viewer think about vulgarity not just in the present but in the past, when one of the historical works on display reads: ”Well-bred people do not often dress in what is called ‘the height of fashion’, as that is generally left to dandies and pretenders.”
The Barbican exhibition achieves its aim as a thought-provoking study of “the vulgar” — even without trying to keep up with the Kardashians.
John Galliano's "Orient Express" couture collection for Christian Dior, Autumn/Winter 1998-1999
Vivienne Westwood often references 18th-century portraiture in her couture collections