Review: The Vulgar, Barbican Centre: An Idea Too Big for a Single Show

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Ah, taste. It is a word loaded with judgment. It conjures up all sorts of feelings around class, arrogance, prudery, condescension, primness, and the rest. If something is considered ‘tasteful’ then anything veering from that is considered vulgar. Classless. Cheap. To be avoided.

For as long as there have been people, there has been ‘taste’ – the means by which people discern what company they should keep and how to mark out and judge those who do not fit that definition. Exclusivity. And now, in The Vulgar, the Barbican Centre is hosting a large fashion exhibition that examines the role of taste and vulgarity through fashion down the ages.

It’s a huge subject matter – the source of vulgarity and taste, whether that be in class, sex, religion and piety, commercialism, ambition, even obviousness. And, specifically, the part fashion plays in challenging the conventions of taste, provoking, and pushing boundaries and prejudices. Just the scale of the question is probably too big for a single show to answer, but The Vulgar is full of the right questions.

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Sectioned by theme rather than by era, the show starts off with pieces from the most famous-post-war provocateur in fashion, Vivienne Westwood. In truth, her entire back-catalogue stands as a challenge to taste, yet included here are two famous pieces: the ‘Eve’ nude body stocking, complete with a solitary fig leaf between the Legs, and her exquisite ‘Boucher’ corset that blends ‘high’ art with terrific cleavage.

Further on there are also some wonderful loans from the Fashion Museum in Bath: 18th century dresses that are as wide as corridors – their wearers’ ambition as evident as the exhibitionism and attention-seeking nature of the dresses. And, at the other end of the fashion eras, there’s a smart use of Chanel, with Karl Lagerfeld’s love of overt use of branding and commercialism that he knows puts some people’s backs up.

But there are more oddities than eye-openers. An example being the Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dresses from the 1960s, included here on the pretence of the challenge in blending fashion with art. Really? And I wasn’t convinced by the use of Gareth Pugh’s coin top and striped trousers because they used unconventional materials. That seemed an odd diversion and so uncontroversial to the point where it was easy to pass them by.

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It’s an odd mix and the result is that, overall, the show feels quite flat and lacking in dynamism. Even more so when you compare it to the Jean-Paul Gaultier show that was put on in the Barbican last year. With that in mind, there is a sense here that exhibits are comparatively thin on the ground, and perhaps more effort could have been made with developing sections into ‘worlds’ with the theme being more obvious and brought to life with magazines, photography and film. The walls are too generically grey and brown. Little to enhance the mood or showcase the clothes in a wider context.

It’s also questionable whether the ‘right’ exhibits have been used. For example, when looking at underwear as outerwear, there’s a reliance on Prada ready-to-wear collections from the past few years when, surely, that was a baby of the 1980s. If not before.

I would have loved this to have been a bigger show, to have captured a far wider cultural examination of certain eras. Or perhaps to have focused in on five or six key ideas, such as sex, religion, class, whatever, and to have really examined these subjects in particular post-war eras with both fashion and other paraphernalia. Really got under the skin a bit more.

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Perhaps that would have been just too ambitious, perhaps those exhibits and loans impossible to obtain. But either way, it feels like this show only just scratches the surface of such a fascinating topic. Nevertheless, though the show may be a bit uneven, it certainly got me thinking.

Barbican Centre, London to February 5, 2017
Admission £14.50 (concessions available)

All installation images by me.

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