Taste is a very personal thing, something we use to assess our attitudes to the outside world, to determine whether something is decent, appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. But, our tastes can also be used against us, to define what we kind of person we are and the effectiveness of our judgement. To have good taste is not just about individual satisfaction but it sends an outward signal to the world about who we are – one key element of taste is a sense of collective agreement, having others to reinforce your ideas. With this in mind the Barbican has opened an exhibition it claims celebrates the antithesis of taste, vulgarity.
Having now seen the exhibition, I have to admit to being to being rather perplexed by the use of the word “vulgar” in association with the exhibits and arguments on display here. It opens with a determination to reclaim the word and return it to its earlier associations where it meant commonplace or vernacular, and a determination to show how fashion ‘revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste.’ There is very little here that, to my mind, fits our notion of the word vulgar which, aside from its original meaning, now has a prevailing association with the coarse, crass and crude.
While I see what the Barbican is trying to do, it seems the word vulgar was chosen more for its intriguing appeal on a poster than for its actual and clearly defined application to the exhibits and themes of this exhibition. It may get people through the door but the concept feels over-intellectualised which for all its reasoning and the explanatory text by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, just doesn’t make sense in the context of what you see. Instead, what this show is about are the perhaps less attention grabbing concepts of populism and fashionability, exploring the line between societal changes and clothing, and whether fashion creates or reflects new modes of living, particularly when dealing with the outrageous or unconventional.
A centrepiece on the Ground Floor is a large collection of dresses from or inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for large hooped skirts, ruffles and shaped bodices that transformed the female form by extending the hips, flattening the bosom and slimming the waist to almost unnatural proportions. The argument here is that etiquette books offered young women a modest and genteel guide to dressing appropriately suggesting that extravagance in size and adornment of dress was the antithesis of good breeding and elegance. Yet, these are quotes from the late nineteenth-century guides while the pieces on display are clearly eighteenth-century, more than 100 years before when the way taste and fortune were displayed was quite different.
Those considered to be leaders of ‘polite society’ such as the famous Duchess of Devonshire and the Whig crowd, certainly took fashionable interpretation to excess with enormous expensive dresses and unmanageably tall wigs that often represented their political allegiances, and what this exhibition doesn’t tell you is the fame and recognition that excess created was used to promote interests in politics, science and patronise the arts. By the definitions of this exhibition and guides from a century later, these people were ‘vulgar’. But the historical record doesn’t really back this up. In fact while the extravagance of “The Ton” – the nickname for the Duchess and her cronies – was gently mocked in the press, their influence on fashion, concepts of taste and modes of living among those considered ‘well-bred’ was more celebrated than derided. And the purpose of such styles was to display their wealth and influence.
It created a trickle-down effect through society that only suggests vulgarity in the old-fashioned sense – the popularisation of something that was once the preserve of an elite. And as this room goes on to show, the effect of that influence continues to resonate in fashion today with stunning modern pieces by John Galliano, Gucci and Vivienne Westwood who have frequently drawn on the eighteenth-century shapes and fabrics for inspiration. Sitting alongside some beautifully embellished wide-hipped ‘Mantua’ originals, Westwood created a spectacular jade green full-skirted Watteau dress with black trim inspired by the era. You can’t wear it to Tesco but it’s hardly vulgar in either sense, haute couture is certainly not populist nor can the artistry, detail and beauty of it be considered coarse or crude.
Rather than shoe-horning these clothes into a pre-set definition of vulgarity and taste – labels which of themselves change over time – adding more historical context can explain a great deal about why particular fashions and preferences for excess or simplicity emerged, based on the social, political, economic and cultural experience of the era as well as how they were used by individuals to create personal influence. And that is something clearly missing from this show.
One of the issues here is that most of the clothes on display are specifically avant-garde or haute couture where there is an argument that they are created as pieces of art, not intended to be widely worn, self-selected for this exhibition by virtue of their outrageousness, and thus not representative of “fashion” in the sense of a ready-to-wear designer collection or a high-street off-the-peg offering. And while some exhibits represent those categories, the distinction (ie. the purpose of creating that specific item), is not made clear enough, never mind whether it can be classed as vulgar or not (in whatever sense).
If you take away the entire structure of this exhibition, you’re left with a collection of interesting and eclectic items which are actually nice to see. Borrowing from Pop Art influences there is a Moschino evening gown that looks like it’s made from sweet wrappers, while sitting next to it a short yellow number is also printed with packaging images, while a paper dress from the 60s has a pattern of Campbell’s soup adverts (which you can also see in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show). These, as I suggest above, showcase the intersection of design and populist influences from the fun movements of the times, but are arguably not created to be widely worn.
Similarly the show opens with some beautiful Grecian inspired dresses which the blurb rather pretentiously interprets as ‘the imitation of classical culture… reimagined in a vernacular tongue’, as well as later displaying some puritan lace collars and seventeenth-century stomachers that defy the label of vulgarity. Like the eighteenth century clothes this suggest an ongoing interest in the way in which draping, cut and shape can create a fluidity around the body that again reflects the political attitudes to femininity in the era they were created rather than a mere vulgarisation of ancient styles.
And then there’s the outfits that are truly avant-garde, created as part of a wider collection and never seriously intended to be worn. In a section on royalty entitled ‘impossible ambition’ there are Dior outfits inspired by the short-like pantaloons and ermine trimmed jacket worn by Henry VIII in his famous Holbein portrait, as well as a Viktor and Rolf flared red dress with accompanying wheat and flowers headpiece inspired by Van Gogh in a section on ‘Too Big’, while a Walter van Beirendonck elephant skirt is reminiscent of those emu costumes with fake legs that 70s comedians used to wear at the Royal Variety Performance. Yet, none of this is vulgar; silly yes, playful certainly, but vulgar not really.
For the most part, the Barbican delivers excellent value with its art and photography exhibitions which are usually smart and informative without being pompous, and I think that is the problem here – the intellectualising in the written descriptions is just a bit too pleased with itself, a tad smug. This attempt to unpack the concepts of taste and vulgarity could have been achieved more simply and in a way that matched the outfits chosen with the historical, social and cultural context of their creation. So go for the clothes, enjoy the chance to see detailed craftsmanship, artistry and glamour of designer work, but don’t worry about the concept – it doesn’t make any sense anyway.
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican until 5 February 2017. Tickets cost £14.50 and there are concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1