Fashion Goes Vulgar In Barbican's Latest Exhibition

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, Barbican Art Gallery ★★☆☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 21 months ago

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Fashion Goes Vulgar In Barbican's Latest Exhibition The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, Barbican Art Gallery 2
Fashionable or not? Would you wear any of these?

Are the ostentatious ensembles seen on catwalks examples of high-end fashion, or merely vulgar?

This new Barbican exhibition is based around the strange concept of what vulgarity is when it comes to dress sense, what it has meant over the years, and what it means today.

To see what vulgar is, we need to start with the classy look - that includes these Mondrian inspired dresses.

It’s a strange question and an odd one to base an exhibition around, but can Barbican make it work?

We start off with definitions of what vulgar is, and it's obvious that nobody has a clear view. It was originally a term used to describe the tastes of the 'common folk', but fashion designers today see it as a theme to adopt in their own designs.

Period dresses were pretty ostentatious too.

This theme of the vulgar is largely an excuse to show some spectacular outfits stretching over 500 years. See the impractically wide Mantua outfits of the 18th century English court, next to modern designs by the likes of Gucci and Christian Dior which are even more outrageous.

We see Viennese gold bonnets, a stuffed crow head dress, dresses inspired by Van Gogh and by Warhol’s soup cans, a plunging top made from coins, and much more that fashion fans will enjoy.

Men’s fashion isn’t ignored, with a bright pink suit covered in illustrations that wouldn't be amiss in a children's book, and a muscled body suit with transparent trousers and a green faux-beard. We know little about fashion, but we found the latter to be about as vulgar as fashion can get.

A suit for the extravagant, yet chlidlike, gentleman.

Big designer brands and famous designers are reeled off, and it feels more like an advertisement for high-end fashion brands than an exhibition — at times it feels more like being emerged in London Fashion Week than in a gallery.

Definitions of the vulgar are provided by a psychoanalyst, but this contemplative approach just doesn't fit in with this showcase of the most extravagant clothing money can buy, especially as we never touch on the meaty questions; Who defines what bad taste is? Are certain designers so esteemed now that whatever they produce will be accepted as being in good taste?

Van Gogh was the inspiration for this ensemble.

If these sorts of challenges were tackled by this exhibition then it could have been an enjoyable one, even for non-fashion fans.

As it stands, it’s never quite sure what it wants to be. At times it’s about the definition of vulgar, at others the history of fashion, but then again half the exhibition is dedicated to a who’s who of big name fashion brands and designers.

Fans of modern fashion will see plenty of outrageous outfits to admire but it does feel like the big labels have taken centre stage just to ensure the Barbican can draw the crowds.

By trying to be both deeply intellectual and a show filled with extravagant outfits we’re left with a whole load of visually attractive loose threads that never come together to make a complete outfit.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is on at Barbican Art Gallery until 5 February 2017 Tickets are £14.50 full price, concessions available.

Last Updated 17 October 2016