Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – The Vulgar : Fashion Redefined at the Barbican from 13th October 2016 to 5th February 2017

Exhibition Review – The Vulgar : Fashion Redefined at the Barbican from 13th October 2016 to 5th February 2017



The Barbican Art Gallery present The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined which is an exhibition which questions notions of vulgarity in fashion. The exhibition features over 120 exhibits from the Renaissance through to the 21st century, loaned from major public and private collections worldwide, with contributions from leading modern and contemporary designers such as Walter van Beirendonck, Chloé, Christian Dior, Pam Hogg, Christian Lacroix, Jeanne Lanvin, Moschino, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Philip Treacy, Undercover, Viktor & Rolf, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood.


The theme of the exhibition takes the literary definitions of ‘the vulgar’ as a starting point and illustrate though historic dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion, textile ornamentation, manuscripts, photography and film that vulgar is a concept that often changes over time and fashion designers often use the concept to shock and titillate.


The word vulgar is taken from the Latin vulgare which means to make public and common. Gradually the meaning began to be used in relation to good and bad taste and a way for elites to differentiate themselves from everyone else. Clothes and fashion were used in this process from the earliest times and exhibition explores how extravagance, ostentation and exhibitionism began to be the vehicle for social advancement, on display is a pair of 18th century mantuas, with overskirts of nearly 2.5 metres in width.


The history of fashion is often related to the way that clothes may cover or expose different parts of the body. The exhibition explores this theme with pieces by Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s and Belgian avant-garde designer Walter van Beirendonck’s with his elephant skirt outfit with Stephen Jones’ oversized hat.


Another theme of the exhibition is the way that fashion sometimes uses the vulgar and commonplace to accentuate exclusiveness. A Chanel fashion show in a shopping centre is recreated.


The concept of vulgar is not an easy one to pin down, wealth can good yet vulgar. Clothes made with materials such as gold, velvet, pearls and spangles are often determined vulgar. When people began to become wealthy outside of narrow elites, good taste is determined by having ‘class’ which even ‘vulgar’ people with wealth cannot attain.As the exhibition suggests the popularisation and commerce aspects of fashion can be seen as inherently vulgar especially when it is perceived to be too popular, excessive, kitsch or camp.


Curators, Judith Clark and Adam Phillips have created a highly original and entertaining exhibition about fashion past and present. Using the concept of vulgar explores some of the different themes and contradictions of the fashion world. Exclusiveness is often the starting point of many designers to appeal to wealthy patrons, other designers want to play with concepts of good and bad taste to appeal to a wider market.


Fashion with its relationship with commerce is often not taken seriously as a creative art because it is tainted with accusations of vulgarity trying to appeal to the common people. In many ways, this exhibition questions this simplistic view illustrating that it has often been used to differentiate between the classes and provided a vehicle for groups to consider themselves of good taste and not ‘vulgar’.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

Ticket information : Standard: £14.50/ Concessions (OAP and unemployed): £12/ Students/14-17: £10 

If you would like further information or book tickets, visit the Barbican website here

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