The Vulgar, Barbican Art Gallery | reviews, news & interviews
The Vulgar, Barbican Art Gallery
The Vulgar, Barbican Art Gallery
The most vulgar thing about haute couture is the price tag
In this autumn’s Vagabonds Collection, Viktor and Rolf showed a pink top covered in hundreds of buttons and framed with elaborate furls of pale pink and blue tulle; did they intend the model to look as if she was wearing a giant vulva across her chest? For me, this is the most vulgar garment (pictured below right) in an exhibition that supposedly explores the concept of vulgarity, yet is full of extremely tasteful designs.
On video, fashion designers like Manolo Blahnik, Zandra Rhodes and Christian Lacroix discuss what vulgarity means in terms of their work. Most interesting is milliner Stephen Jones who recalls that his mother once condemned a woman as vulgar for carrying a crocodile handbag in town, when the correct place for it was in the country. Ignorance of the unwritten rule indicated a lack of breeding that allowed for this embarrassing faux pas!
I also find crocodile handbags offensive, not as a result of where or when they are worn, but because they require the slaughter of animals simply for their skins. Similarly distasteful to me are mink, ermine and sable, the furs traditionally preferred by monarchs as indicators of status, wealth and power. In my mind, these long-standing symbols of superiority have become emblematic not of sophistication and good breeding but greedy and vainglorious affluence – as likely to be worn by the mafia as the nobility.
Is good taste entirely in the eye of the beholder, then? Perhaps; but, it is far from just being a matter of personal preference. For centuries, sumptuary laws regulated who was allowed to wear what. For instance, in Elizabethan England purple was reserved exclusively for the monarchy with a dispensation for aristocrats and Knights of the Garter to line their ceremonial cloaks with it. The amount and type of fabrics, jewellery and trim permitted to different classes were similarly specified, with the “lower orders” being excluded entirely from wearing flamboyant dress.
We may think we have long since freed ourselves from stringent rules and the need to wear our status on our sleeves, when in fact we relentlessly police each other. Women, in particular, are constantly being scrutinised to see if they are appropriately dressed. The press have pilloried Theresa May, for instance, for showing too much cleavage while Stephen Jones cites “mutton dressed as lamb” as a blunder worthy of ridicule.
By focusing almost exclusively on haute couture, The Vulgar only brushes the surface of these fascinating issues. You could argue, of course, that because it caters for the obscenely wealthy, the whole fashion industry is vulgar, but that does not make for a very interesting story and, far from being vulgar, even the self-consciously transgressive garments on show lack the tackiness associated with vulgarity, since they are beautifully made and presented.
One definition of vulgarity is either showing too much flesh or making explicit reference to the body hidden beneath. Made of little more than strategically placed straps or frills, Pam Hogg’s bodysuits playfully stretch the boundaries of acceptability. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Tits Top, a white muslin shirt painted with bare breasts, might have been saucy in 1976, but now seems remarkably tame. With its perspex fig leaf, Westwood’s Eve Bodysuit could be considered vulgar if worn with nothing underneath, but in the age of the pornographic selfie, it seems quite coy.
The elephant’s trunk that dangles like a limp prick from the skirts of Walter van Beirendonck’s brocade crinoline (pictured left) is too surreal to be suggestive or sexy, especially as the model sports a giant cylindrical hat by Stephen Jones that looks like a prop from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, another definition of vulgarity is “not in the style preferred by the upper classes of society”, or “cheap and nasty” as my mother would say. Being made of denim in no way makes Manolo Blahnik’s hip-length boots appear vulgar, though. Fringed with glitter and attached to a waste band, these are classy goods whose tone is lowered through association with bondage and fetish gear and because they are worn with a tight fitting body stocking.
The inflatable pink hat made of cheap plastic by Stephen Jones (main picture) would be a good candidate for the vulgarity prize if references to high art didn’t raise its status to that of a knowing in-joke. Shaped like a pair of lips, it refers to Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa and Man Ray’s painting of lips (Lee Miller’s mouth) hovering in the sky, thus becoming a witty hybrid of high culture and kitsch. Alessandro Michel’s furry loafers have no such saving graces, though. Reminiscent of Donald Trump’s hair, they are as gauchely ridiculous as the wanna-be American president.
I would say that excess – the flamboyant demonstration of being OTT – is the real topic of the exhibition, rather than vulgarity. Included in the show is an eighteenth century mantua, whose voluminous skirt and flounces swallow up acres of expensive brocade (pictured below), and a dress by John Galliano, that engulfs the wearer in multiple folds of painted satin and was inspired by Empress Sisi’s lavish finery and the decor of the Habsburg’s Imperial palace in Vienna. Excess need not be backward looking, though. For the dresses in her autumn collection, Iris van Herpen took inspiration from the seabed. A skirt resembling a cluster of sea urchins was made from laser-cut acrylic glass, while a dress resembling a pile of oyster shells consists of hand-pleated fabric sewn over wire.
Excess comes in as many different forms as vulgarity, and even though it sounds less sexy, is just as interesting. Confusing one with the other seems like a basic mistake, though, since it sows the seeds of disappointment. I doubt if you’ll be outraged or affronted by any of the garments on show, except perhaps by their price.
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