The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined At The Barbican

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Installation Images
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, Barbican Art Gallery, 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 (Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery)

What is vulgarity in fashion? At first, images of inappropriate, revealing clothing may pop into your head. But there’s much more to being vulgar than that. This is the belief of writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who, together with fashion curator Judith Clark, has created an exhibition spanning 500 years of fashion to really answer this question.

Fashion reinvents itself season after season. But in order to do that, it needs to push the boundaries. It exploits and overturns what has come before it in order to create something entirely new and innovative. By going against what is in vogue, it is being vulgar – tasteless.

The beauty of the fashion world, however, is how this scandal of good taste manages to transform itself from something vulgar to something highly attractive.


“Examining the constantly evolving notion of vulgarity in fashion whilst revelling in its excesses, you are invited to think again about exactly what makes something vulgar and why it is such a sensitive and contested term.” – The Barbican


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Installation Images
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, Barbican Art Gallery, 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 (Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery)

Vulgarity comes in many forms, from lacking sophistication and being crude to overtly copying or being highly excessive.

If it is vulgar to copy, should we criticise influential fashion such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress or even before that, Madame Grès and her Grecian draping? But without this freedom to replicate good design, our high street fashion wouldn’t have such good taste.

When I viewed the almost identical recreations of Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress by other designers, I considered this conundrum. Being free to take design pointers from other’s work is beneficial for overall creativity but I don’t feel that the exact copies I now see on the high street are doing much good. Yes, they allow the average person to have as much style as the model on the catwalk but I think there should be a limit.

Take inspiration but create something new. In my opinion, this copycat system is going too far.


Another interpretation of vulgarity is the idea of excess. I was shocked to read pages straight out of ‘The Ladies Book of Manners’ (c. 1880s) informing readers that a well dressed woman is one whose outfit is not memorable. The reason being that women were expected to dress in a way that did not draw attention to their bodies.


“By dressing well we do not mean dressing extravagantly. You might have the most costly attire, you might appear in satin and lace, feathers and jewels, and yet be far from well dressed.”


It is no surprise then that the groundbreaking fashions of the time included dresses that were far too big, extending out at the hips and drawing as much attention as possible.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. Eighteenth Century Court Mantua, 1748–1750. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath.

In contrast to vulgarity through excess, the exhibition then explores exposure and the lack of clothing. The 1960s are a great example of how something once seen as unsophisticated transformed into the most coveted look of the time: the mini skirt.

These days it takes a lot more to shock us. We’ve gone from ankle grazers, to knee-length, to wearing underwear as outerwear.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. Pam Hogg, (left) Diamond Dogs and Demons, A/W 15 – 16, (right) Future Past/War and Peace collection, S/S 14. Images by kind permission of

One of the last rooms explores vulgarity in the mixing of low-value, common items with the high-end luxury of designer fashion. Take Jeremy Scott’s use of fast food packaging to create humorous designs or something I particularly loved, Mary Katrantzou’s creatively worked yellow ‘pencil’ skirt.

This type of vulgarity shows us that the disposable can be made to be just as desirable as the heirloom.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. (Left) Mary Katrantzou A/W 12 – 13, Ready-to-wear. Courtesy Mary Katrantzou.

In all its forms, the vulgar is continuously redefining fashion. A thoroughly thought-provoking exhibition, The Vulgar at the Barbican will challenge your ideas of taste and sophistication and reveal to you that there’s plenty more to vulgarity than being crude or scantily dressed.


“Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” – Judith Clark, exhibition creator. 


If you liked this post, check out: Georgia O’Keeffe & Tate Modern’s New Building

xo Sunna


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