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The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined - Barbican Art Gallery

Eighteenth Century Court Mantua (Robe and Petticoat), 1748–1750. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath.

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined will be on display at the Barbican Art Gallery from October 13, 2016 to February 5, 2017.

Potent, provocative and sometimes shocking, the word vulgar conjures up strong images, ideas and feelings in us all.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is the first exhibition to consider this inherently challenging but utterly compelling territory of taste. It both questions notions of vulgarity in fashion while revelling in its excesses, inviting the visitor to think again about exactly what makes something vulgar and why it is such a sensitive and contested term.

Exhibits are drawn from major public and private collections worldwide, with contributions from leading modern and contemporary designers such as Walter van Beirendonck, Manolo Blahnik, Chloé, Christian Dior, Pam Hogg, Christian Lacroix, Jeanne Lanvin, Moschino, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Philip Treacy, UNDERCOVER, Viktor & Rolf, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood.

Conceived by exhibition-maker Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the exhibition takes fascinating literary definitions of ‘the vulgar’ as a starting point and includes a wealth of over 120 stunning exhibits from the Renaissance through to the 21st century.

Weaving together historic dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion, textile ornamentation, manuscripts, photography and film, this carefully crafted installation illustrates how taste is a mobile concept: what was once associated with vulgarity is reconjured by designers to become the height of fashion. Encompassing a 500 year timeframe, The Vulgar showcases historic works alongside a roll call of contemporary fashion.

The exhibition demonstrates how fashion through the ages actively breaks with and revises taste to create new expressions of style, often celebrating, courting or exploiting so-called vulgarity and its possible pleasures.

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, said: “I am so thrilled that we are staging The Vulgar at the Barbican. With such a bold and brilliant concept, Judith Clark and Adam Phillips have created a highly original, redefining and hugely enjoyable exhibition about fashion past and present. Playing with juxtapositions, different themes and vistas, they’ve set the stage for visitors to wonder, ponder, question, reflect or just revel in why some costumes are considered vulgar, how that changes through time, context and experience.

“The exhibition builds on previous Barbican exhibitions such as Jam: Style+Music+Media in 1996, The House of Viktor & Rolf in 2008, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion in 2010 and more recently The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk in 2014.”

As a product of popularisation and commerce – seemingly always a poor imitation of a superior object – fashion itself is shown to be inherently vulgar; but more especially when it is perceived to be too popular, excessive, sexualised, kitsch or camp. Visitors are taken on a journey through these thought provoking categories.

The exhibition looks at fashion’s enduring fascination with vulgarity’s excesses, featuring moments in dress history of extravagance, ostentation and exhibitionism; such as a pair of 18th century mantuas , with overskirts of nearly 2.5 metres in width, a selection of exquisite 18th century somachers and a collection of intricately decorated fans from The Fan Museum in Greenwich.

One of the exhibition’s themes directly explores the relationship of fashion to the body; both through over exposure using lace and body stockings to simultaneously reveal and conceal the body in looks from Louis Vuitton and Pam Hogg; and the exaggerated body, where the body is explored and its erogenous zones are amplified in looks such as Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s tits top and Belgian avant-garde designer Walter van Beirendonck’s elephant skirt outfit with Stephen Jones’ oversized hat.

Some installations are devoted to certain materials, accessories, fashion labels and embellishments that have come to embody, at different times, the supposedly vulgar; such as gold, velvet, pearls and spangles.

The history of exhibiting fashion, as opposed to fine art, is tainted with accusations of vulgarity – for example, the relationship between the gallery and the department store – something which the exhibition explores by revisiting historically significant displays that were received as outrageously vulgar when first shown.

Based on new research into the origins and loaded interpretations of ‘the vulgar’, the exhibition runs together Clark’s installations of dress and Phillips’ commentary. Drawing on voices as disparate as Jonathan Swift and Coco Chanel, Samuel Johnson and Diana Vreeland, the exhibition exposes ‘the vulgar’, like its counterpoint good taste’, to be ultimately all about perspective – something to fear and something to enjoy.

Designers in the exhibition include (more to be announced soon):

Walter van Beirendonck, Manolo Blahnik, Chloé, André Courrèges, Christian Dior, Erdem, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Rudi Gernreich, Nicolas Ghesquiére, Madame Grès, Pam Hogg, Marc Jacobs, Charles James, Stephen Jones, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, Jeanne Lanvin, Malcolm McLaren, Maison Margiela, Miu Miu, Moschino, Paul Poiret, Miuccia Prada, Gareth Pugh, Zandra Rhodes, Jeremy Scott, Elsa Schiaparelli, Raf Simons, Jun Takahashi, Philip Treacy, UNDERCOVER, Viktor & Rolf, Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood and Bertrand Guyon.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated book published by Koenig, designed by Charlie Smith Studio, featuring essays by Judith Clark and Adam Phillips, transcripts from interviews with designers in the show including Walter van Beirendonck, Christian Lacroix and Zandra Rhodes.

Image: Eighteenth Century Court Mantua (Robe and Petticoat), 1748–1750. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath.

Tickets: Standard: £14.50; Concessions (OAP and unemployed): £12; Students/14-17: £10; Young Barbican: £5 (no booking fee); Art Fund Members: £12; Membership Plus: Unlimited free entry + guest; Membership: Unlimited free entry.

Times: Saturday to Wednesday, 10am – 6pm; Thursday and Fridays, 10am – 9pm; Bank Holiday Mondays: 12noon – 6pm; Bank Holiday Fridays: 12noon – 9pm.

The Barbican, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS

Tel: 0845 120 755