The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined

Is fashion really about taste?


Our arts correspondent Gulnaz Can spoke to Sinead McCarthy, the associate curator of the exhibition at The Barbican.


The Barbican Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined”, is created by fashion curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. This is the second exhibition from this cross-disciplined duo after “The Concise Dictionary of Dress” in the V&A archives in 2010. The word vulgar was discovered by the exhibition creators to have so much to it, that it had to be unpacked. Years of thinking about and discussing this highly charged, economic and societal term led them doing so through definitions, fashion and anti-fashion objects in this exhibition. The associate curator Sinéad McCarthy, however, also adds the labour that was imposed on the visitors of this exhibition: being tested about their personal perceptions and perceived ideas about the vulgar. Making clear to them is that Vulgar is not necessarily a negative thing.

What is vulgar anyway? Why is anything vulgar? Does it sound bad, unpleasant? And why is that so exactly? I must be honest and say that walking through the exhibition did not make things any clearer for me, it actually confused me further. Still, I think that I kept my inner wish, which was to see some revelations from the ‘other’, and things that I don’t often associate with myself. Not that I was looking for some good material for my Schadenfreude, but rather because I simply would not like to be vulgar. So, did I come to see this exhibition rather to see the ‘other’?


Sinéad McCarthy says; “When we see something vulgar, it’s about us. It is not necessarily about what we’re looking at. It’s very much about perception.” She also adds that the concept opens up a good way to discuss how we feel about ourselves and others. The vulgar raises anxieties within us. We often ask if this is vulgar, is what I do or what I wear ok? It’s a movable thing in a double meaning. Another point of double meaning is also raised by McCarthy: “Is it them being vulgar or people who criticize them? Criticizing somebody and making that statement itself can become vulgar.”

Walls and walls of definitions written by Adam Phillips accompany 120 exhibits, encompassing a 500 year timeframe. If you’re familiar with Adam Philips’ scholarly background, it is not hard to see that this is a very Freudian reading of fashion and anti-fashion, exploring desire politics, featuring absence, possession, aspiration, impossible ambitions, mockeries, etc.

Philips, in one of the definitions says: “Vulgarity is wanting something that you can’t be or can’t have.” This suggests that this ‘wanting’ is an endless and never satisfied desire to own/have/be accepted, etc. McCarthy claims that it actually fits so nicely with fashion - You always strive for something, wanting to be fashionable, wanting the next thing. It is never feeling that we have everything we want. Where do we get that satisfaction, she asks. Even if we have enough, are we original, or copying somebody/something?


Vulgar might be the blurred line between the ins and outs of fashionable terms. Though it has been attempted to keep this line clear, and Adam Phillips talks about it as some sort of violence of the categories. The exhibition also covers some non-fashion pieces, books on language or etiquette such as Elizabethan Sumptuary Law and literary references from the 17th century through to the late 20th century. It is very interesting to see how the word ‘vulgar’ was applied in certain periods of literature, and to see the impact of the word in society or in fashion across time. We are told in the exhibition that it was a crime to appear in outfits, which made you look a higher class than you are. It was, at a point, criminal to be aspirational. It is remarkable to see the transition of someone who is trying to be fashionable as well as fashionable objects. To explore the idea of the word ‘vulgar’ meaning one thing hundreds of years ago and meaning something else now; too big today, too little in 20 years time... Judith Clark quotes Mary Quant: “People call things vulgar when they are new to them.” It makes me wonder if this exhibition has a point about tolerance.

The line has also been kept clear through the impossibility of ambitions; a commoner wearing a crown, for example. This is indeed a political exhibition. McCarthy agrees particularly about this idea of aspirational dressing or aspiring to be somebody else in general – always being a copy and knowing that you’ll never be the ‘actual’. One of the exhibits is a John Galliano outfit for Christian Dior from 1998, which reminds us very much of Henry VII looking at us from a painting. Another example is Zandra Rhodes’ dress from 1981, part of her Elizabethan Collection. The title of the collection would say enough. These dresses are to demonstrate the fact that they are, in a way, copies; they are re-referencing. As Phillips says, they invite us to imagine the original and expose what has been lost in translation. In this way, the vulgar restores our confidence in the purity of the source. McCarthy mentions the Vulgar’s relation to migration through Adam Phillips’ stress on vulgar being a sign of mobility, cross-cultural and cross-class cooperation.

Apparently, some designers were cautious about being associated with the word vulgar because of its negative connotations, but they were brought round after having it explained. It is possible to hear different comments on vulgar by some of the designers in a video, which forms part of the exhibition. Zandra Rhodes associates vulgar with the words ‘shocking’, ‘experimental’, and ‘new’; Stephen Jones remarks that he would never make anything vulgar; and Hussein Chalayan says that being vulgar is being forceful and confrontational – something which might not be quite so positively accepted in English society. Finally Christian Lacroix very revolutionarily says: “Bad taste doesn’t exist. There is just taste.”

There is a lot to read and see in this fashion exhibition titled using the very intriguing word ‘vulgar’. It is there to tell us about taste, in both its supposedly bad and good incarnations. You can also see some anti-fashion moments of the fashion world like the “Not-vogue” project or “Fashion Fascism” issue of Rags Mag. The exhibition points to these moments in fashion while also illustrating some of the concepts which are used to explore the vulgar, such as common, sexualized, exposed, exaggerated bodies, too big, too much, too popular, new baroque, neo-classicism… Elements in different installations give a historical background, however the exhibition is definitely not designed chronologically.


Performing an act of vulgarity as defined in the exhibition, we can own a copy of a copy of a copy. The Barbican Art Gallery’s shop sells dresses by contemporary designer Michael Barnaart van Bergen, which are copies of Yves Saint Laurent’s cocktail dresses from the Mondrian Collection in the 60s, which featured the paintings of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. As it is, once something is copied, it becomes available and popular, and therefore stigmatized as vulgar, Phillips warns us. The Van Bergen dress is also exhibited in the show in a display case with mirrors taking the dress to infinity, as it is an endless story being a copy of a copy.

The exhibition can be seen until the 4th February 2017 at Barbican Art Gallery, London, after it will tour to the Winter Palace, Vienna.

all images above: Installation views Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

all images above: Installation views
Barbican Art Gallery, London
13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images