A Review of The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at Barbican Art Gallery, London
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is a visually arresting exhibition.
Articulately narrated and presented, the exhibition was created through the collaboration of curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Philips. Taking Philips’ definition of “vulgar” as a starting point, the exhibition looks at 500 years of fashion through the prism of 20 different eras and themes. In Philip’s words: “vulgar is either what the vast majority of us are; or the vulgar are those who ... pretend to be something we would like to be.” It is difficult to convey such a visual and sensory exhibition in words. Clark’s distinct sections outline a clear logic and progression throughout the show, while demonstrating how the art of making – and wearing – fashion becomes a mirror of our society.
At the entrance, I was struck by two statuesque white dresses from the first section 'Nymphs'. Crétoise and Casanova were designed in 1984 by Karl Lagerfeld for Chloe. Remarkably contemporary and with a clear Art Deco influence, the dresses are set between two separate displays of draped white gowns. Of these, three dresses by Greek designer Sophia Kokosalaki are reminiscent of Classical sculpture and the Acropolis Caryatids.
The neo-classical simplicity of Kokosalaki’s work is juxtaposed in the next section to Vivienne Westwood’s 'The Fortunate Fall' with clothes depicting the naked body, covered by fig leaves as Westwood’s playful take on Adam & Eve. This is shown in the context of Boucher’s 1743 painting after the myth of Daphnis and Chloe. Philip Colbert’s Naked Dresses (not shown in this exhibition) might be seen as a millennial reinterpretation.
The eye turns next to 'Once and For All', featuring Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Mondrian dress. Clark was able to source different variants of the design in alternate colours. When Diana Vreeland showed Saint Laurent’s work at the Costume Institute in 1983, it was the first time a living designer became the focus of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. This stirred controversy as critics accused Vreeland of helping promote a commercial brand. As Clark rightly points out: “the [Mondrian] dress, with its own legacy of copies, still prompts a debate about fashion’s originality and value, both inside the museum and outside of it.”
These bring us to consider how fashion can be inspired by art, and art inspired by fashion. The next section, 'Classic Copies', develops on this theme. High street fashion copies the catwalk, as seen through the lens of Martin Margiela who “twice translates his evening dress, from sequined gown to viscose copy” for his H&M collaboration. So often associated with the Roaring Twenties of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the decade began in 1920 with beautiful gowns reminiscent of 18th century court dress, such as Jeanne Lanvin’s Robe de Stile, shown here. Clark highlights how, almost a century later, Lanvin’s Stile will be echoed by Raf Simons for Dior – in minimalist style. Continuing upstairs to the second part of the exhibition, one is struck by a stunning Gucci ensemble shown next to an example of 19th century court dress, which clearly provided some inspiration. Alessandro Michele is whimsical and brilliant, although he has a long way to go to match the opulence of the time – if that is indeed his aim.
Another highlight was a display of two extravagant, tasseled dresses, by Jean Paul Gaultier, and Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy Haute Couture. In a section dedicated to the 'Puritan', Clark underscores the juxtaposition between the austere, black uniform of 17th Century Flemish culture, and the ornate, expensive lace used to make the white ruffles and collars of Puritan garb. Even austerity needs an outlet for excess.
In addition to the pleasure of seeing many beautiful clothes and objects, as if at a fantasy ball, visiting The Vulgar was an opportunity to learn about the development of fashion and our relationship to it. The clothes and accessories we see on catwalks and in the press were not only presented, but explained. Fashion has seemingly always been used to convey an image of ourselves to the outside world: “well-bred people do not often dress in what is called the ‘height of fashion,’ as that is generally left to dandies and pretenders” (The Lady’s Book of Manners, c. 1880s) This can be communicated both through the overall effect of a look, and detail of individual items, such as the “stomachers”in Oes and Spangles, beautiful and richly decorated central bodice pieces inserted into the open robes of the 18th century Mantuan court. Stomachers were used to flatter the body by tapering towards the waist and pushing up the breasts. “The visibility of the figure is accented by the intricate embroidery overlaid with oes and spangles (sequins and flat metal ornaments).
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is about the garments. Clark presents their historical and psychological context alongside her interpretation of the designer’s artistic research. This is the exhibition’s DNA, and its strength. Pick up a copy of Luncheon on your way out from the show, a new magazine featuring a portrait of Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci by Lord Snowden and an article by Lucas Zwirner on Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon: The Art of Collaboration, among others.
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is on view through February 15, 2017 at the Barbican art gallery.