Draped before me is a dress like no other. From an elaborately woven headdress to a sumptuously embellished hem, it confidently celebrates the excesses of the eighteenth century. Tracing its embroidered pattern, I realise that this is no regency relic; this is no robe fit for the likes of empress Josephine or mistress Maria. Billowing out from an empire-line belt, swaths of cream silk, with blue feathered flowers, burst definitions of past glamour. This is the regency reloaded. Designed by John Galliano for Dior, the gown entitled, ‘La Mariée’, is a millennial take on our sartorial past and, like many of the fantastical outfits that make up the Barbican’s new exhibition, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, it blasts conceptions of taste with conspicuous aplomb.
Put together by fashion curator and exhibition maker, Judith Clark, in collaboration with writer and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, the exposition centres around the concept of vulgarity, playing off its many connotations and defying the pejorative sense it so often is associated with. John Galliano’s beautifully rebellious take on post-revolutionary dress provides a template for this thought provoking discussion on fashionable extremes and the extremes of fashion. Akin to many items selected for this exhibition, Galliano’s dress admits a debt to the past, whilst bounding forward to reinvent the styles and cuts handed down to us. This notion of looking back to and imitating earlier periods is a central theme that both Clark and Phillips comment on in the twenty sections that make up The Vulgar. From Karl Lagerfeld’s classically inspired trompe l’oeil (‘trick of the eye’) dresses for Chloé, to Pam Hogg’s bondage-style body harnesses, The Vulgar draws together the biggest and most diverse names in the contemporary fashion world.
Having said that, you do not have to be a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ to enjoy it. Clark’s clever curatorship, together with Phillips’ musings on what constitutes ‘vulgarity,’ make this trove of material culture accessible to all. If anything, this is a collection that courts questions, as much as it grants answers. Straddling the line between originality and homage, between what is common and unique, the vulgar, as Phillips and Clark conceive it, becomes at once elusive and subversively available to all. It is vulgarity’s power to outspokenly, brashly, courageously and obsessively emulate taste, that renders it both a threat and creative potential in the eyes of designers.
And if Phillips’ philosophical panels start to blur the concept out of distinction, the clothes themselves bring vulgarity right back into focus. Take, for instance, Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian Dress’. The centrepiece of one of Laurent’s earliest shows, this wool shift dress, in all its polychromatic brilliance, speaks to the heart of what The Vulgar is about: challenging artistic and academic prejudices about fashion’s right to be considered an art form, as well as a consumable item. Laurent’s material quotation or pastiche of Mondrian’s blocks of colour reiterates the language of fashion, announcing it to be a dialogue, a construction, a performance between viewer, wearer and signifying garment.
One section that eloquently voiced the vulgar’s ability to traverse the lines of low and high culture was ‘The Shopping Centre’. Featuring photos and clothes from Karl Lagerfeld’s show for Chanel – whose catwalk recreated the space, activity and colourful glare of the supermarket at Le Grand Palais, Paris – ‘The Shopping Centre’ points to the commodification of luxury and puts a playful slant on conspicuous consumption. By inviting Cara Delavigne and Rhianna to model, Lagerfeld points out our flagrant, albeit vulgar, obsession with consuming the human body, through the cult of the celebrity. Brash, bold and unmistakably exhibitionist, Lagerfeld’s designs capture the spirit of The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. In the manner of Galliano’s dress, vulgarity has never looked so tastefully good.