An ambitious exhibition aspiring to unpack fashion’s inexplicable affiliations with vulgarity, from the historical to contemporary times with Adam Phillip’s masterful eloquence in revitalising the multiplicity of a singular adjective.
Judith Clark reinvigorates the archaic meaning of the ‘vulgar’, as characteristic of the ordinary and common while juxtaposing its present negative connotations in an expansive twenty-part collection. Bringing together classical pieces from the Renaissance and Baroque period, alongside iconic, modern reinventions, The Vulgar is almost in itself, a tantalising scandal of taste; an assault on the senses. Though the inclusion of publications and books that relate to ‘vulgarity’ – the common, ordinary, popular, outlandish, excessive, pompous – and film in conversation with notable stakeholders in the field, to disrupt the deluge of fashion and mannequins proved a necessary relief.
The Vulgar undoubtedly reveals the complexity of taste in fashion and our social milieu, provoking deep thought on the question of where is the line between good and bad taste now? How has that progressed from the past, wherein what was acceptable in the past is perhaps now perceived as vulgar, or vice versa?
It divulges numerous truths within society and its obscurity towards the ‘vulgar’: the nebulous differentiation between nakedness and nudity; the all too controversial boundaries of gender and sexuality (read: the overly sexualised female body and contentious effeminate male); the contention of originality with the proliferation of imitation and the hypersensitivity towards appropriation. Yet while looking at some exquisite pieces of the exhibition, we are compelled to eventually arrive at the conundrum of taste: how can such beauty be vulgar? Or rather, why is have we come to define the ‘vulgar’ in such negativity such that these items of fashion are condemned for its popularity, or unpopularity, depending on how we see it?
Truly unprecedented in boldly questioning the arbitrary whims of fashion and taste, The Vulgar at the Barbican is a remarkable endeavour to locate our present sentiments on the validity of fashion, including its place in the museum.
Barbican Art Gallery
13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017
By Keoy Wan Hui