Guest Columns

Tempted by Vulgarity


Hilary Reid

19 the vulgar fashion redefined barbican art gallery michael bowles getty images
Installation view from “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” Barbican Art Gallery, London © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

“The Vulgar” was the focus of an unlikely fashion exhibition mounted at the Barbican in London last October. The creation of fashion historian Judith Clark and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the exhibition was clearly intended to challenge, or “interrogate,” a wide range of assumptions and clichés. Though many of the fashions displayed at the Barbican were beautiful, others notable for extravagance, or wit, or elegance, several were selected principally to raise questions about the meaning of originality, or our addiction to so-called good taste. Fashion was, to be sure, front and center throughout the very extensive Barbican assemblage, and yet fashion itself seemed but a single, convenient representation of the ideas and puzzlements at hand. The focus on “vulgarity” was designed to send viewers through the Barbican with tantalizing questions in mind—questions about taste, to be sure, but also about class, sensibility, condescension, ostentation and a host of other preoccupations. Those uneasy thoughts were provoked not only by the objects on display but by the wall texts and other prompts composed to accompany them. To read a characteristic essay by Adam Phillips, on any subject, is always to feel that your sense of things has been enlarged and complicated, and thus to read him on fashion—especially in the first-rate catalogue* prepared for the show—is to discover that really you have only begun to take possession of something you supposed you’d mastered before.

But then there were many surprises on offer at the Barbican. Surprising, to me at any rate, was the inclusion of several pieces of clothing—this was, after all, a show subtitled “Fashion Redefined”—that did not in any sense confirm what I had previously associated with “the vulgar.” Take, for instance, a conservative, floral, Provencal, traditional jacket, or droulet, from 1790, or a prim and ultra-feminine 1950s Christian Dior evening dress, or a delicate French Agentan linen needle lace collar from the 1740s. A museum-goer landing in sections of the show featuring such items would be apt to doubt that they had anything to do with vulgarity. No doubt an aspect of the experience shared by pretty much anyone confronted by the sheer, sometimes dazzling variety of objects assembled for “The Vulgar” was the nagging thought that the term itself is no longer quite available to us in the way it once was. Even to invoke the term in a casual way is to acknowledge that it is at once a sort of old-fashioned term, even a cliché, nowadays rarely used, and yet somehow also fraught, in several respects uncomfortable.

In part, this may have to do with the fact that the exhibition encourages viewers to loosen up, chill out, and calm down about so-called good taste. After all, the show is informed by the observation that vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder, that it is not an intrinsic property of objects. By juxtaposing certain high fashion items incorporating conventionally outré (or vulgar) features with items lacking obvious signs of vulgarity, Judith Clark forced this viewer at least to wonder about the roots of her own presumptions and aversions, and of course Phillips’s wryly brilliant and often counterintuitive definitions of vulgarity (to which I’ll return in a moment) made a persuasive case for opening up one’s sense of what is and is not tasteful or delectable. When I entered the Barbican, I thought of vulgarity as something to be avoided at all costs—louche, common, gross. By the time I left the museum, I was surprised to find that vulgarity, only somewhat reconceived, was something I was tempted to embrace.

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In his catalog essay on “The Vulgar,” Phillips references an article in the style section of The Guardian, in which fashion editor Hadley Freeman refers to the word “vulgar” as “overused-to-the-point-of-cliché.” In response, Phillips writes:

There are reasons why we might want to overuse a word to the point of cliché: to make something that is contentious appear self-evident; to make a club out of fellow-users; to fortify ourselves with collusive like-mindedness; to conceal the violence of our taste. We make words into clichés—take them to be clichés, or habits—when we don’t want to think about them.

One way to salvage a term from cliché is to reinterpret it. In preparation for the Barbican show, Phillips conceived eleven new definitions of vulgarity, from “Common” and “Too Popular” to “Impossible Ambition” and “Puritan.” In re-describing and contextualizing vulgarity in this way, Phillips suggests that it is not as opaque or unavailable as we might think. Though “vulgar” has often been used as a conversation-stopper—“she is so vulgar,” someone might say as a way to dismiss someone without further explanation—the term may be more richly deployed in an effort to examine one’s own prejudices, or to note, in an ironic way, how condescension is often an expression of unearned superiority.

In speaking of “The Vulgar Tongue,” Phillips invokes the 17th century sense of the term, which entails simply “what is common,” belonging to “the people.” He writes:

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 everyone could speak, and what would we be suspicious of? Vulgarity amuses us because it makes us uneasy. And it makes us suspicious because it is too close to home; it reveals an embarrassment we are trying to avoid.

Here Phillips asks why we might be suspicious of our own “vulgar tongue,” or commonness, our decidedly “popular” appetites, and describes the vulgar tongue as that which we believe “needs to be refined.” In this sense, even the floral Provencal droulet , whatever its rich tones and intricate embroidery, its obviously refined craftsmanship and use of traditional techniques, may betray its status as a kind of provincial person’s dress. To me, the assorted 19th century Provencal pieces were not only “beautiful” but museum-worthy, old-world, to my eye in no way common or inferior. But within the context of “The Vulgar” we were instructed, as it were, to regard such items as just the kinds of things that people concerned with their own status would shirk for the new and the modern, so long as “new” and “modern” signified for those persons “refinement.” In the exhibition, Clark juxtaposed the Provencal pieces with 1980s styles by Christian Lacroix, a designer who has been explicit about the influence on his designs of traditional styles associated with Arles, his birthplace in the South of France.

But Lacroix has also been explicit about the influence of vulgarity in his work. In an interview included in the exhibition catalog, Lacroix states, “The vulgar is the source of everything I do, because I can’t help designing from something existing, something simple, and something with a deep soul, and something belonging to my guts somewhere.” Lacroix’s pieces in “The Vulgar” incorporate large lace patterns, oversize bibs, and big, flat-rimmed sunhats, all obvious references to an umistakably provincial past. The enlarged, somewhat off-kilter, and even emphatic renditions of these pieces seem to me to be a critique of our willingness to “refine” the common, or vulgar, styles of our ancestors. They demonstrate a certain knowingness on Lacroix’s part: he knows that these are old-fashioned elements, tokens of a past which he carries in his “guts,” so that, instead of concealing that past, Lacroix’s designs suggest that we forthrightly embrace it and see what it reveals about the present.

In a different section of the exhibition entitled “Extreme Bodies,” Phillips notes that “where there is pleasure, there is always the temptation of vulgarity…Sometimes we fear that vulgar pleasures are the real pleasures—the ones we need to disdain and distance ourselves from, as though the vulgar is a version of the forbidden.” Presumably Phillips would include, under “pleasure,” a whole range of activities, from sex to flamboyant displays of wealth or excess, which, at one time or another, have been described as vulgar. For “Extreme Bodies,” Clark selected clothing that demonstrates how the body has been (or might be) considered vulgar depending on how much or how little is shown. In this section, we find a strappy leather bondage bodysuit and a white chiffon bodysuit, both by Pam Hogg—who, Clark notes in her captions, often represents fetishism and sexuality in her runway shows—as well as a short dress by André Courrèges, who, along with Mary Quant, was an early proponent of the miniskirt. A1964 Rudi Gernreich bathing suit, with bottoms that went up to the waist and a top comprised of two straps that would go between, but not cover, the breasts, was displayed nearby. A person wearing any of the three getups would certainly show some skin—but while the minidress and even the topless bathing suit now seem relatively tame, even mainstream, the bodysuits still fall within the realm of the “unwearable,” or, to some, the vulgar.

As I walked through the halls of the Barbican, I felt a deep urge to wear some of these “unwearable” pieces. What becomes of me if I put on Manolo Blahnik’s thigh-high denim boots encrusted in rhinestones—the kind of shoes that would give my well-mannered grandmother a heart attack if she saw me wearing them—or, better yet, that strappy black leather bondage bodysuit by Pam Hogg? How do I see myself if I dare to wear Gareth Pugh’s top made entirely of gold coins, or one of the most enticing pieces in the show, a pair of Gucci loafers fabricated in long amber-colored goat hair, only identifiable as Gucci loafers by their signature horse bit detail?

This fantasy—or impulse—calls to mind a passage in The Language of Clothes, in which Alison Laurie expands upon Roland Barthes’ suggestion that theatrical dress is a kind of writing, in which the sign is the foundational element. Laurie refers to the components of a style as “words.” “‘Vulgar words,’ in dress,” she writes, “give emphasis and get immediate attention in almost any circumstances, just as they do in speech…They are most effective if people already think of you as being neatly dressed, just as the curses of well-spoken persons count for more than those of the customarily foul-mouthed.” I read and reread this formulation and can’t help thinking of myself as one of those customarily well-spoken or at least cautious persons who might well wish, now and then, for something strong, even harsh, to provide “emphasis.” I’ve always loved, mainly dreamed about, a shocking pair of bedazzled stilettos or a flashy top, but you will more often find me in flats and a turtleneck. Though the items in “The Vulgar” are not ones I would ordinarily wear, the temptation to make myself “vulgar,” just to try it out, is strong. We know, of course, that putting on a very short dress and very sharp high heels can be a strong visual way to command sex. But what about putting on something funny? Or something that looks like a work of art? “The Vulgar” demonstrates that vulgarity can be as various and unpredictable as beauty—that when we embrace the humor and smarts of it, when we brandish it occasionally with abandon, we have in our reach a powerful aesthetic that can challenge, confuse, attract, or repel.

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A question that remained with me after viewing “The Vulgar” is whether or not the distinction between high and low fashion is still relevant today. So much of what might traditionally be considered low—the thigh-high boots, the over-the-top proportions, even Moschino’s bright pink plastic pair of blow-up lips worn as a hat—is, if not commonly worn, a common enough sight. Last spring, several designers created sheer tops and dresses that models wore without bras, so that their nipples were on display, and sheer pants and skirts that displayed the model’s undergarments. These looks are no longer shocking, and only a very unhip person would think to declare such garments vulgar. In fact, anyone offended or distressed by sheer womenswear might well find himself under fire for failing to respect a woman’s right to display her body as she chooses. As Laurie writes in The Language of Dress, “In speech, slang terms and vulgarities may eventually become respectable dictionary words; the same thing is true of colloquial and vulgar fashions.”

There is one item that strikes me as particularly vulgar in 2017: a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat. Style aside, the red cap is so potently vulgar that I would not wear even the parody hats put out by the Hillary Clinton campaign (hats that read “I have a very good brain”) or the “Make America Read Again” hats sold in the Strand Bookstore in New York. “The Vulgar” opened at the Barbican in October 2016, four months after Brexit and a month before the election of Donald Trump in the United States. The October morning that I went to see “The Vulgar,” I received a breaking news email from The New York Times. The subject line read: “Donald Trump brags in vulgar terms about groping women in a 2005 recording, saying, ‘When you’re a star they let you do it.’” Both Brexit and Trump’s election have widely been described as reflections of the “people speaking” (though the popular vote totals in this country suggest otherwise). And yet it is hard not to think again of the old 17th century definition of vulgarity as “common” or merely “popular.” Months after seeing “The Vulgar,” I’m struck by the extraordinary prescience the theme has taken on. The vital vulgarity presented in the halls of the Barbican Centre is one I am eager to embrace, and yet a different strain of pungent vulgarity has taken command of things at the White House.

“The Vulgar” exhibition closed in February, a few weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump and a weeks before the Fall 2017 fashion weeks took place in New York, Paris, London, and Milan. Politics were on the mind of several designers: Prabal Gurung sent models down the runway in t-shirts that read “The Future is Female,” Missoni models wore the pink knit pussyhats that have become emblematic of the Women’s March, and Public School opened their runway show with a model in a bright red “Make America New York” hat. These looks were in protest of Trump, of course, and one can imagine certain viewers feeling assured that these designers were taking a public stand against the president. Still, it does not take much of a cynic to feel that these items were included in the runway show because feminism and activism are, at the moment, popular and profitable. The designers took items of protest clothing that already existed—pink hats, t-shirts with feminist slogans—slapped on their brand name and sent them down the runway. They simultaneously sold assurance of their political awareness (and correctness) and, of course, a name brand product.

These items do not strike me as sufficient expressions, let alone critiques, of our vulgar moment. If designers intend to create styles that engage with a vulgar political moment, they would do well to look at the modes of expressing vulgarity demonstrated in “The Vulgar.” In his catalog essay, Phillips writes, “Through performance, through styling, through caricature, through fashion: vulgarity is a way of thinking about the idea of the real thing. If there is something supposedly unreal about the vulgar—if vulgarity is a kind of pretence—then it is possible to be real.” While it is too early to tell exactly what the “real” might look like in the often unreal-seeming times of Trump, one fashion collective (that was not included in “The Vulgar,” but would have fit right in) provides clues. The styles put forth by Vetements—a brand known for its confounding, challenging, often ugly clothing, and whose name simply translates as “clothing”—caricature the “real thing,” as it were. What is the “real thing” for Vetements? Usually, it is the most common stuff of everyday life. Take, for instance a Vetements’ t-shirt with the DHL shipping company logo emblazoned on it, or a pair of redesigned Champion sweatpants, or a banal grid-patterned men’s shirt that is a bit rumpled and ill-fitted, worn with the kind of brown leather belt commonly found on businessmen, but in an exaggerated length, so that part of the belt almost reaches the floor. These pieces are inspired by items associated with everywhere and nowhere; they are a kind of mirror held up to the stuff that so commonly surrounds us that we hardly see it. The Vetement garments draw our attention to the ubiquitous ephemera of the present—the clothes we wear to work, the clothes we wear to relax, the logo of a company we use to ship things to various places—, a present that feels oddly accelerated and uncertain.

The peculiar oddity and uncertainty definitely call to mind the strain of self-knowing vulgarity articulated in “The Vulgar.” Can clothing communicate anger? This clothing can, and the anger feels relevant to the present moment. In The Telegraph, Kate Finnegan writes, “[A] snarly attitude… emerges at a Vetements show…The models race along the catwalk at an amphetamine-fuelled pace, deliberately unglamorous. There was no ambiguity about the sweatshirt for next season that proclaimed: You Fuck’n Asshole.” In an interview with Vetements designer Demna Gvalasia, Finnegan brings up the seemingly angry clothing and asks about “inspiration.” The design collective is based in Paris, and Finnegan suggests that, perhaps, the violent events at the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo offices might somehow have influenced these styles. At first Gvasalia denies that the attacks were on his mind, but then states: “I remember the morning after walking through Paris and it was zombie land. Maybe the anger somehow was present in our last show, yeah, but it was totally subconscious. In the same way, before Charlie Hebdo we had made all these security and police sweatshirts. Something is in the air, I guess. It’s strange. At a certain time you feel certain things and then it filters through to the world.”

The idea that the mood of a time affects fashion is not new: it has long been said, for instance, that when markets go up skirt hems get shorter, and when markets fall, skirt hems are longer. In an article in The Guardian, design critic Alice Rawsthorn answered the question “Is fashion a true art form?” by stating, “Fashion rarely expresses more than the headlines of history.” It seems to me that Rawsthorn’s answer understates what fashion can do, but still the pieces in “The Vulgar,” and pieces like those put forth by designers like Gvasalia, do, suddenly, reflect the current headlines of history: those of impossible ambition, excess, the rise of the common and popular. But they express more than the headlines, too—they offer a critique, a way to articulate vulgarity that transcends the ugliness of our moment. Perhaps now, when we are forced to reckon with a kind of vulgarity beyond any we have seen in recent history, we can look to the artful vulgarity in “The Vulgar,” a kind that laughs at and knows itself—one that is not unrelated to irony, a powerful artistic tool of protest.