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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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”.
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?
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.”
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.
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.”
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