The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined

Discover the challenging and utterly compelling question of how fashion revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste

By Barbican Centre

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined (2016) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is the first exhibition to foreground the challenging but at the same time utterly compelling question of how fashion revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste. Conceived by fashion curator and exhibition maker Judith Clark in collaboration with the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, the exhibition takes Phillips’s definitions of ‘the vulgar’ as its starting point. Drawn from public and private collections, with contributions from leading modern and contemporary designers, the exhibition presents pieces spanning 500 years of fashion, from the Renaissance to present day, weaving together historic dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion, textile ornamentation, manuscripts, photography and film. 

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined (2016) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Experiencing The Vulgar

Potent, provocative and sometimes shocking, the word vulgar conjures up strong images, ideas and feelings in us all. In The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, you are invited to think again about exactly what makes something vulgar and why it is such a sensitive and contested term. Join us for a tour of the Barbican Art Gallery as we experience 'vulgarity' in all its forms and hear from some of the designers featured in The Vulgar, including Walter van Beirendonck, Manolo Blahnik, Hussein Chalayan, Stephen Jones, Christian Lacroix and Zandra Rhodes.

Walter Van Beirendonck's mens suit and Vivienne Westwood's 'Eve' bodysuit and Boucher Corset From The Portrait Collection by Walter van BeirendonckBarbican Centre

Talking Vulgar...

What is vulgar? How can you define such a contested term that changes its meaning throughout the ages? Using definitions by psychoanalyst and The Vulgar co-curator, Adam Phillips, we explore the different ways we can think about vulgarity - and hear how this word has impacted - or defined? - the work of well known designers in the public eye.

The Vulgar Is: The Scandal of Good Taste (1960/1980) by Zandra RhodesBarbican Centre

How do we define ‘vulgar’? Zandra Rhodes, Walter van Beirendonck, Christian Lacroix and Stephen Jones introduce what the vulgar means to them.

Chloé by Karl Lagerfeld, Spring / Summer 1984. Cassanova Dress and Crétoise Dress by ChloeBarbican Centre

vulgar exposes through imitation

'The vulgar, like fashion, is always a copy. It invites us to imagine the original and exposes what has been lost in translation. In this way, the vulgar restores our confidence in the purity of the source.


So the only that that interests us about the about the vulgar is what’s wrong with it, because it is pretending to be something that it is not. Vulgarity is wanting something that you can’t be, or can’t have.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Imitation by Christian LacroixBarbican Centre

Look familiar? Christian Lacroix and Hussein Chalayan talk about taking inspiration from some unlikely sources including shrines and false nails to create their beautiful works of fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian dress by Yves Saint LaurentBarbican Centre

In 1983, Yves Saint Laurent was the first living designer to have a major exhibition dedicated to his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Perhaps the most iconic piece in that exhibition was his Mondrian dress made almost twenty years earlier, which, due to its translation of the original Mondrian canvas, fuelled the debate around the place of fashion in the museum, and came to embody the cries against it. The exhibition, as all exhibitions of fashion, was seen to be ‘advertising’ a commercial concern. The 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.

William Horman, Vulgaria, 1530Barbican Centre

vulgar reveals taste as prejudice

'In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Bible was translated—vulgarized—into English and other vernacular languages, and could then be understood and spoken about freely. Literate people could read it for themselves. There could be as many understandings of the Bible as there were readers. Access could create anarchy...In Renaissance Sumptuary Laws, in etiquette books, in dress codes, in fashion magazines, in gossip, vulgar is a term used by the guardians of taste. And the vulgar becomes fashionable when the guardians of taste are in disarray. Vulgarity is then taste out of order.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Taste as Prejudice by Manolo BlahnikBarbican Centre

What do you think of when you hear the word 'vulgar'? Hussein Chalayan, Manolo Blahnik and Stephen Jones discuss how the definition of vulgar relates to the concepts of taste.

John Galliano for Dior, Spring/Summer 2003 Haute Couture, John Galliano, From the collection of: Barbican Centre
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‘So preposterous and fantastic are the disguises of the human form which modern fashion has exhibited, that her votaries when brought together in her public haunts, have been found scarcely able to refrain from gazing with an eye of ridicule and contempt for one another. And while individually priding themselves on their elegance and taste, they have very commonly appeared in the eye of an indifferent spectator, to be running a race for the acquisition of deformity.’ From The Young Woman’s Companion (c.1841)

John Galliano for Dior, Spring/Summer 2009, and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Autumn/Winter 1999 – 2000, by Alexander McQueenBarbican Centre

vulgar and the fashionable have to keep an eye on each other

'Vulgarity is always more of something, never less: it exaggerates; it never understates; it performs; it never retreats. It is committed to enjoyment... It always reminds us of what is missing; it draws attention to what it lacks. It has no other worldly desires. It is a self-cure for the fear of impoverishment. It acts out the scandal of entitlement, the pleasures it represents and the envy it creates. It is the theatre of ambition and kitsch is its celebration. It both fears and courts ridicule. Puritanism is its foil and its target.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Looking at the Fashionable by Walter van BeirendonckBarbican Centre

Christian Lacroix, Stephen Jones and Walter van Beirendonck explore how fashion itself has influenced and inspired the vulgar.

Selection of bonnets, Vienna 1780-1810Barbican Centre

vulgar is a form of longing

'The vulgar tongue is the common language, the native language, the language ‘we’ speak. It is local and indigenous, like national or traditional dress. So, why would we be suspicious of, or amused by, a language that everyone could speak, and what would we be suspicious of? Vulgarity amuses us because it makes us uneasy...The vulgar are mean, gross, brash, gauche, tasteless, kitsch, coarse, pretentious, camp, rough, rude, common and so on – and that is how they speak. It is only ever other people who are vulgar...Everyone has a tongue but not everyone has, or has to have, a vulgar tongue.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Longing by Manolo BlahnikBarbican Centre

To buy or not to buy… Manolo Blahnik, Christian Lacroix and Hussein Chalayan discusses the vulgarity of buying, longing and greed.

Maison Margiela. Spring/Summer 2009 Ready-to-wear by Maison MargielaBarbican Centre

vulgar as access

'The vulgar is something we make. Nothing is naturally, or essentially, or in itself, vulgar. Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder...The vulgar always make us wonder whether they are having more pleasure than we are. The vulgar are enjoying when they should be admiring. The vulgar are showing off when they should be showing some respect. Perhaps we think of pleasure as vulgar. There are no vulgar fears.


Bodies are transformed into the vulgar through description and adornment: clothing, jewellery and cosmetics. And because it is an art of over-emphasis—playing with scale and proportion and ostentation—the vulgar requires a different kind of attention to detail...Vulgarization is a radical art because it distracts as much as it coerces attention.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Access by Walter van BeirendonckBarbican Centre

Too much on show? Walter van Beirendonck, Hussein Chalayan and Stephen Jones explore how their clothes play with how people see or interpret garments and objects on the body.

Vivienne And McLaren, Malcolm Westwood's TITS t-shirt, 1976 by Vivienne WestwoodBarbican Centre

How might clothes exaggerate a body? By making it fake and transposing the chosen body part onto the dress, what happens to it? Vivienne Westwood’s painted exposed breasts have the shock of Punk defiance. The even more daring topless bathing costume from 1964—shown for the first time in Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1971—was, we read in the museum notes, displayed pinned to an exhibition board, thereby denying it a body.

Zandra Rhodes, Renaissance Cloth of Gold Crinoline, 1981 by Zandra RhodesBarbican Centre

is the sign of an impossible ambition

'When the word ‘vulgar’ is not used to describe ‘the mob’, ‘the masses’, the ‘common people’, it is used to describe people who are trying to be something that they are not. And because they aspire to something that they feel excluded from, they represent for us the impostor, the con man, the spy, the actor...


The arrivistes, the nouveau riche, the immigrants, the upwardly mobile: all those who aspire to participate, to succeed, to adapt could be accused of vulgarity...


Vulgarity is the ambition that makes a mockery of ambition. It is the aspiration that overexposes what it aspires to.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Impossible Ambition by Zandra RhodesBarbican Centre

Can fashion give you ideas above your station? From crowns and royal dresses to objects themselves, Zandra Rhodes, Hussein Chalayan and Stephen Jones explain how ambition influences their work.

John Galliano for Dior. Autumn/Winter 1998 - 1999 Haute Couture, John Galliano, From the collection of: Barbican Centre
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Classification is considered essential to museum collections and their project of accumulating knowledge. The pieces collected here question classification, in terms of time, place and order. The designs allude to former, more glorious historic codes of dress and to social classes above those of the wearer (a commoner wearing a crown for example, or wearing insignia that they are not entitled to, or they are unable to decipher). The dresses suggest through their precious gold patina a value beyond the commercial. They also, by virtue of being held in museum collections, aspire to a different kind of cultural status. Fashion is still an aspiring category within the museum.

Walter Van Beirendonck, Electric Eye collection. Spring 2016 Menswear by Walter Van BeirendonckBarbican Centre

vulgar is a secret compromise between good and bad taste

'Like ‘too fashionable’, ‘too popular’ means ‘too available’. We are suspicious of people and things that are ‘too popular’, as though ‘too popular’ means ‘too eager to please’, ‘too opportunistic’, ‘too servile’, ‘too hidden’, ‘too cheap’. ‘Too available’ as a sexual definition is always a term of abuse. Anybody or anything that, like money, passes through too many hands, is vulgar.We want to dissociate ourselves from it. It is degraded and degrading, as though there are too many bodies involved, and bodies are contagious. As though we could lose ourselves in the crowd, and not find anything else we might want. ‘We’ wouldn’t know who ‘we’ are without the vulgar.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Compromise Between Good and Bad Taste by Zandra RhodesBarbican Centre

Could vulgarity be the new good taste…? Stephen Jones and Zandra Rhodes share their thoughts on how the vulgar must balance that wonderful line between what is good and bad taste.

Prada, Spring/Summer 2014 Collection by PradaBarbican Centre

vulgar draws something to our attention

'If we always know the vulgar when we see it, how do we know it?...When we think we understand it we still don’t like it. Or if we really enjoy it, we don’t understand quite what we are enjoying.

...We are amused by it, or appalled by it, or enjoy it without giving it a second thought. As though we fear something might happen if we allow ourselves to be interested or curious; as though the vulgar had some dangerous allure...The vulgar is like a blindspot – it has found a way to stop us thinking about it. Just as we don’t really know what it is about a joke that amuses us, we don’t really know what is vulgar about vulgarity. Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Getting Our Attention by Stephen JonesBarbican Centre

What is vulgar behaviour…? Stephen Jones and Hussein Chalayan discuss attention grabbing vulgarity from fashion to behaviour.

Selection of fans from the Fan Museum by The Fan MuseumBarbican Centre

vulgar is trying not to be original

'In its earliest uses, ‘common’ was distinguished from ‘aristocratic’. It was used to describe the shared, the ordinary and the vulgar. It described the communal within a class system, a contradiction in terms. So it has been all too commonly used as a derogatory term. Vulgarity exploits the difference between the common and what we have in common. It turns the tables. It turns fashion into uniform.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Not Original by Zandra RhodesBarbican Centre

Does a designer have to be original all the time? Zandra Rhodes and Walter van Beirendonck talk about designing on the cutting edge.

Karl Lagerfeld for CHANEL, Autumn/Winter 2014-15. Ready to Wear. by Karl LagerfeldBarbican Centre

vulgar is failure as success

'As the scapegoat of good taste, the vulgar does a lot of work for us. And like all scapegoats, it must not inspire us. It encodes and carries our disowned pleasures and fears. It represents whatever it is about beauty that we can’t bare. It is the exception we use to prove the rules, the failure we need to insure our success. The vulgar is there to be punished.


...Vulgarity guarantees nothing. The vulgar as an uncompleted action, as an experiment, as a testing of the audience, may be more promising than its many alternatives.' Adam Phillips

The Vulgar Is: Failure as Success by Manolo BlahnikBarbican Centre

Who decides the rules of fashion? What happens if we break them? Stephen Jones, Manolo Blahnik and Walter van Beirendonck share their insights on how the vulgar can offer opportunity for great creativity and success.

From Renaissance to the present day, explore some of the rooms from 'The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined' at the Barbican Art Gallery to get close to the vulgarity on display...

Credits: Story

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined took place in the Barbican Art Gallery from 13 October 2016 - 5 February 2017

The exhibition went on to tour to Winterpalais, Vienna from 3 March to 25 June 2017

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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