The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at Barbican Art Gallery


Outfits gaudy and gauche are put centre stage in this tongue in cheek fashion exhibition that shines a light on the joy of questionable taste

Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney

I’m hearing a lot of talk at the moment about how there is no such thing as “good taste” or “bad taste” but rather only “taste”. The premise is that we should be more avant-garde in our attitudes to culture and fashion and stop thinking that the single greatest marker of something’s “tastefulness” is whether it’s taupe or not. You’ll certainly find no taupe at the Barbican’s flamboyant new exhibition that revels in utter ostentation.


Gathered from private and public collections across the world, The Vulgar displays some 120 fashion objects from antiquity through to modern couture that dazzle in their outrageousness. Everything from enormous 18th century golden ball gowns to John Galliano’s “couture” pirate outfits for Christian Dior are on display. There are inflatable hats, YSL’s Mondrian dresses, and Moschino bangers straight from last year’s catwalk. It’s a hilarious feast of fashion roadkill; a delight to eyes tired of another “fashion” exhibit of wedding dresses or tiaras.

Most of these costumes were never really made to be wearable anyway. Whether publicity gimmicks or subversive statements on fashion itself, it’s easy to see the designers were having fun. The red carpet is usually the place fashion’s over the top designs are worn; though I think the only A-lister asking to loan these for the Oscars would be Lady Gaga.


The Verdict

What’s ironic about this exhibition is that many of the pieces are beautiful. Yes, colours clash, silhouettes are impractical, and the embellishments absurd, but you can see craftsmanship and creative minds at work behind it all. An exhibition of truly “vulgar” outfits would involve far more sheepskin booties, velour tracksuits, and chunky gold-tone metal watches. The Vulgar’s clothes show a lot more thought than that.

Like posting a private jet selfie on Instagram; it’s vulgar, but fabulous.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at Barbican Gallery runs until 5th February 2017.

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