The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Exhibition Review

Vulgar, may be defined as either a lack sophistication and good taste, or it can be used as a explicit or offensive reference to sex or the body. Over the years, the fashion industry has drawn both to and from the word vulgar, using it to exploit, manipulate, and break the boundaries of taste.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined currently exhibiting at the Barbican, is the first exhibition to bring the word and its multiple definitions to life. Fashion curator Judith Clark collaborated with psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, to create twenty areas that showcase over 500 years of fashion, with contributions from modern and contemporary designers to the showcase of classic Renaissance pieces. The exhibition is thought-provoking, forcing you to question, what can be truly deemed tasteful or vulgar.


Greecian vibes never go out of style

‘Nymphs’ was the name of the first section showcasing classic dresses from Pam Hogg, Madame Gres and Karl Lagerfeld. Far from vulgar, the classic dress is one style that resists the change of the season. “It is aligned with a category of beauty that is not to be questioned”, which is evident when standing within the presence of these pearlescent, almost angelic dresses. Although created by modern and contemporary designers, these dresses imitate their ideal of classical culture, thus displaying a very distinctive image of good taste.


Don’t copy me

The third space titled ‘Classic Copies’ focused on originality and copies within the fashion system. Nowadays, designers incorporate the copy into their own designs, with the use of more technologically advanced devices.

The high street store H&M acts as a middle man between the designer and the high street consumer, commissioning affordable pieces with high end designers. For example, Maison Martin Margiela’s Trimpe L’Oeil dress was translated from its original sequined gown to a viscose t-shirt copy. Adam Phillips states at this point “Once something can be copied it can be made available and become popular; and the available and the popular can be stigmatised as vulgar.” Therefore, a copy which can be consumed on a mass scale is no longer of good taste…


Art is fashion… fashion is art?

Piet Mondrian’s work is one of the most well-known pieces of art, perhaps this fame is also due to the canvas’s translation into YSL’s Mondrian dress. A debate of which is still present, was fuelled surrounding fashion’s place within the museum, it’s originality, and its value. Art is allowed to be vulgar, in order to express the emotions of its creator and this vulgarity is not frowned upon. However, fashion is vulgar when of bad taste, when copied, when mass-produced and when unwearable. Can fashion really be art and if so, does it still remain within the fleeting boundaries of the fashion industry?


It’s not all about the bling

‘Too Much’ was a thought provoking area. Written among the lavish and excessive pieces was: “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.” The ideology that to be well-dressed you must showcase your wealth is halted, for this is suggested to be a vulgarity within fashion and its industry.



“The word vulgar is used to police the boundaries of taste. Fashion is where good taste and bad taste mix and match.” This is evident in the section ‘Too Popular’ which shows the audience that inspiration can come from the popular and not always the eccentric. Disney paired with Givenchy in 2016, used Bambi as a motif, questioning the character’s innocence in a vulgar way.

Moschino is a brand that commonly sources inspiration from the popular, using motifs such as Spongebob Square Pants, The Looney Tunes, McDonalds and Barbie within their collections. However, this links back to the previous idea surrounding originality and copies within the fashion industry. Does this source of inspiration echo a sense of vulgarity, as a result of being a copy and thus being consumed on a mass scale? Or, is the reason Moschino’s collections are so well-received due to the fact that they are so vulgar, thus manipulating the rules of classic fashion?



There were many highlights and defining moments at this exhibition, which altered our perception of fashion and the word vulgar within the industry. Some could argue that fashion should always be of good taste, however as designers proceed to bend and break the boundaries of fashion, its perception is constantly evolving. I believe that much like beauty, vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is on now until 5 Feb 2017 at The Barbican.