Review: The Vulgar Fashion Redefined at Barbican Art Gallery, London

According to an interview with Judith Clarke and Adam Phillips, creators of the new exhibition, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, the term ‘vulgar’ needs to be reclaimed, brought back into critical discussion within historical and cultural debates on fashionable dress[1]. Too often, they suggest, ‘vulgar’ is used without explanation and, in doing so, has established itself as a pejorative measure of taste that rarely demands to be further interrogated.  In The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, Clarke and Phillips set out to debunk the vulgar myth by drawing our attention to its language, scenarios and stories, primarily within the context of Western couture and bespoke womenswear over the last 500 years. 

An extract from the catalogue highlighting Phillips text and Clarke’s choice of objects

While Clarke’s interest focuses on the way in which the vulgar has informed the design and curation of fashion, Phillips attends to the term itself, exploring its multiple definitions from a range of humanities perspectives that include psychology, philosophy, history and literature. This manifests itself as an extended essay, split into eleven sections of text that broadly structure the layout of the exhibition. Twenty displays accompany the text, breaking down Phillips’ intellectual content into visual examples or illustrative bullet points, if you like, as they relate to the world of fashion design.  These are curated by Clarke, with the assistance of the associate curator Sinéad McCarthy, who has also provided twenty very short texts that can be found in the free exhibition guide.  Phillips’ text, on the other hand, can only be read as a whole within the exhibition catalogue.  Both, however, do feature interesting illustrations by Alice Smith, inspired by Tarochi cards (shown in the featured image above).

Rudi Gernreich’s 1964 topless swimming costume now displayed on a actual mannequin

As well as focusing on the role of the ‘vulgar’ in couture womenswear, Clarke has also taken this curatorial opportunity to draw the visitors’ attention to the way in which fashion as a social and cultural artifact has, until quite recently, been dismissed as vulgar by museums and galleries thereby impacting upon when and how it has subsequently been displayed.  A nice example of this is the redisplay of Rudi Gernreich’s topless swimming costume from 1964, which is worn by a mannequin in the exhibition.  Yet, in 1971, when the swimming costume was displayed for the first time, as part of the V&A Museum’s Fashion: An Anthology, curated by Cecil Beaton, it was pinned out on a board.  Considered too risqué or vulgar to be seen on a mannequin, Clarke suggests that the garment was ‘denied a body’.  Like the swimming costume, fashion, until very recently, has been denied a physical space of its own within the context of museum curatorial practices.

Designs by Iris van Herpen on display

This is an ambitious exhibition in its attempt to address both breadth and depth of field when it comes to our understanding of ‘the vulgar’ and its relationship with fashion. There are over 120 objects across the twenty displays that would be classed as wearable dress as well as a range of printed material including photographs, films, magazines, manuscripts and sketchbooks.  While the examples do cover 500 years of fashion history, at least a quarter of the displays focus on contemporary designers and the relationship between their work and ‘the vulgar’.  These include sections dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld’s creation of a shopping centre for CHANEL’s 2014/15 catwalk show, Christian Lacroix’s interest in local costume from the south of France and the way in which Prada’s accessories draw upon a historical tradition of fetishising the female body, represented here by the 18th century stomacher.  There is also a specially commissioned film for the exhibition, which features six well known designers including Stephen Jones, Hussein Chalayan and Zandra Rhodes, discussing the significance of the term ‘vulgar’ in relation to their individual design practice. The examples on display provide a fantastic opportunity to see couture design up close and I was especially transfixed by the recent work of Iris van Herpen and Jean Paul Gaultier, in particular the latter’s return to solely making couture.

‘The Shopping Centre’ section featuring CHANEL’s 2014/15 collection presented within the Grand Palais, Paris

Yet, when it comes to understanding the impact of ‘the vulgar’ upon anything that can be ‘designed’, it is necessary to address not just the designer and the designed object but also the context within which both emerge as well as those destined to use the designed object.  While The Vulgar: Fashion Reefined definitely explores how the ‘vulgar’ is understood by fashion designers and the curators’ theoretical interpretations of the designed object, there is very little in the way of how the ‘vulgar’ is understood outside of the established fashion system by what are clearly diverse consumers of fashion.  This can be seen in the absence of menswear and non-Western examples, as well as the brevity with which the exhibition addresses ‘vulgar’ and its pejorative association with common or popular tastes.  For example, the section entitled ‘Common’ focuses on the use of denim by designers such as Nicolas Ghesquiere for Louis Vuitton because Phillips and Clarke see this material as ‘the most common’.  Yet, in terms of production and availability, surely polyester is a more ‘common’ and, arguably, more ‘vulgar’ material?

Photograph of outfit on display in the section ‘Impossible Ambition’ that looks at how fashion subverts historical social hierarchies

With this in mind, I was therefore drawn more towards the displays on sartorial regulation, subcultural dress and the manipulation of physical forms to create extreme public bodies. In particular, I found the display entitled ‘Ruling In and Ruling Out’ particularly engaging as it juxtaposed historical measures to impose sartorial rule from above with efforts to subvert those rules from below.  Here, you could look at Elizabethan sumptuary law alongside a subcultural American magazine called Rags, published in 1970 that challenged mainstream fashion media and production methods. Another display that I felt worked well for the same reason was ‘Exaggerated Bodies’, where punk, branding and celebrities were all considered influences upon the way in which clothes might distort one’s physical body. I think these two displays were also more successful in exploring the way in which Phillips describes vulgarity as both a fan and enemy of privilege; where the vulgar is used to police boundaries of taste and so maintain socio-economic and cultural hierarchies.  

Infamous photograph of Daniella Westbrook wearing head to toe Burberry Nova check in the early 2000s

Elsewhere, the displays consider vulgar’s ‘double-agent’ status solely within the world of fashion design, inviting the visitor to consider how Lagerfeld’s use of a shopping centre for his couture show or Yves Saint Laurent’s adoption of a Mondrian painting for a dress design could be considered vulgar as they attempt to highlight aspiration through consumption and reproduction.  The problem with this, however, is that fashion designers and luxury brands do not want to be too aspirational otherwise they lose their cachet and monetary value.  For some reason, rather than explore that concern, the curators of this show have chosen to ignore it.  I was really hoping to see a reference to an incident in the mid 2000s, when the actress Daniella Westbrook, famous for her role in the popular British soap drama Eastenders, was photographed wearing head to toe Nova plaid, an iconic tartan produced by Burberry.  The subsequent media associations with Britain’s ‘Chav’ culture and its working class origins resulted in Burberry reducing the number of products featuring the plaid to maintain their luxury brand status.   Too much aspiration, as seen in Westbrook’s excessive use of the brand, was considered inappropriate. Anna Murphy, fashion director at The Times, suggests that the ‘vulgar’ is interesting to us because of its link with rule breaking [2].  This might apply to the way in which high street chains like Primark and Zara can now appeal to the wealthy as well as the poor. Yet, as Murphy points out, it’s still considered slightly vulgar for someone with a sizeable income to be purchasing inexpensive clothes.

Downstairs display ‘The New Exhibitionism’

The issue with the exhibition, however, is that it rarely touches on the more common practices and experiences of fashion consumption as a way to undermine, subvert or to confirm aspirational dressing. The work of Pierre Bourdieu revealed that any expression of taste says as much about the owner of the expression as it does of those to whom it is directed towards.  With this in mind, I think the curators have considered how the world of couture fashion might not want to miss out on what the vulgar can offer but have done less to consider how most people, as average consumers, also don’t want to miss out on what might be on offer.  In other words, this exhibition is great if you want to think about what the fashion ruling class think about vulgar but terrible if you want to think more about what commoners think about the term.  For the most part, this exhibition assumes that the common and therefore the commoners are generally too vulgar for further intellectual consideration.  Because of the absence of people who wear clothes and their experience of fashionable dress, I found this exhibition quite a cold experience.  With its predominant emphasis on the psychology and symbolism of couture fashion, this feels like a disembodied look at the ‘vulgar’ with its heavy focus on the unworn aspects of clothing.  For most of us, the garments on display are fantasies, imbued with ambition and desire that will probably never be met in our daily lives.  It was said that the term ‘vulgar’ is ‘outmoded’ and not often used these days [3].  I would agree – it’s not a term I read often, given its Bourdieu baggage. But, perhaps, this is because I am a commoner and so not in a position to reclaim this word?

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is on at the Barbican Art Gallery, London until  5 February 2017 and a standard ticket costs £14.50


[1] Interview with Judith Clarke and Adam Phillips by Leanne Shapton, 15th August 2016,

[2] Anna Murphy in discussion with Judith Clarke on Women’s Hour, 19th October 2016,

[3] ibid.

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