When you run an image search for “vulgar outfit”, Google throws up a gallery of female celebrities. There is Kim Kardashian clad in a sheer blouse and Miley Cyrus in minimal metallic bondage; Lady Gaga wearing beef and Cara Delevingne in a pizza-patterned onesie. Either too much or too little, it would seem, is the charge implied by the word “vulgar”, although of what exactly is unclear. What is obvious is the fixation on the female or feminised body.
This much is evident, too, in The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, an exhibition on view at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. Co-curated by fashion historian Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, it proffers a rich display of historic and contemporary fashion designs clustered around 11 speculative definitions of “the vulgar”. Penned by Phillips, these definitions are witty, illuminating and sometimes unexpected – one section, “Puritan”, stands as a form of counter- definition, with its historical collection of demure falling-band collars displayed alongside a selection of pastiche 17th-century Dutch burgher outfits designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior. But none of these definitions – “Showing Off”, “Common” and “The New Baroque” among them – suggest what a Google search yields in an instant: vulgarity, especially when used to describe dress, is a deeply gendered term. That this dimension should be left unexamined is surprising given that, with a few notable exceptions, the garments featured in The Vulgar are all clothes made to be worn by women.
Apart from this conspicuous absence, Clark and Phillips treat the term with imagination and intellectual curiosity. Their premise is simple, albeit complex in its implications: vulgarity has no preordained essence. Something once deemed the height of fashion – the extreme proportions of crinolined mantuas worn in the court of Louis XIV – could soon be considered gaudy.
The trompe l’oeil evening dress from Martin Margiela’s spring/summer 1996 collection, for instance, could be deemed vulgar when re-editioned at a lower price point for H&M in 2012. “Vulgar” is a word people use to identify that which they hope they are not (out-of-date, cheap), and as such it’s a key ingredient of social formation. Here, Clark and Phillips are on well- trodden territory: the role played by the judgement of taste in class positioning was extensively examined in 20th- and 21st-century sociology. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s quasi empirical 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, perhaps the most epoch-making of these studies, took the tastes of the French postwar bourgeoisie as its data set. Distinction also introduced to wider audiences terms such as “cultural”, “social” and “symbolic capital” to describe the ways in which lifestyle choices (what we choose to consume as much as what we reject) continually project our class positions.
It is no coincidence, then, that The Vulgar affords special attention to garments made in or inspired by the late-17th and 18th centuries, a period when western societies began transitioning to industrial capitalism and organised into social strata still recognisable today. Among these exhibits are elaborately decorated rococo fans and encrusted court mules by Manolo Blahnik. There is also La mariée, a crinolined wedding dress accompanied by a voluminous headpiece that served as the final look from Galliano’s spring/summer 2005 couture collection for Christian Dior. Galliano, too, seems to see the 18th century as a starting point for his understanding of fashion, as La mariée concluded the gradual reverse chronology that his collection had presented, with the first look being a plain black leotard. These pieces demonstrate or invoke the type of luxury items that were available to an increasingly affluent middle class thanks to international trade and the colonial enterprises of a handful of European countries – in short, an economic model that depended on slavery.
But with the emergence of the European middle classes also came a pervasive social anxiety connected to luxury consumption: how best to distance oneself from those “below”? How to avoid signalling too blatantly one’s upward social ambition? It was in the 18th century that the word “vulgar” changed from its classical sense – that which pertains to or is used by the people – to the epithet we know today. It was also in this period that the judgement of taste became a hot topic in aesthetic philosophy. “Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity [...] and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy,” wrote the philosopher David Hume in his 1757 essay ‘Of The Standard of Taste’. “But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions.” While Hume continued to address the relativity of taste, he and near-contemporaries such as Immanuel Kant (in his 1790 Critique of Judgement) tended to treat aesthetic judgement as a “pure” realm – one unsullied by commercial considerations. It was Bourdieu’s accomplishment, some two centuries later, to systematically hammer home the role played by taste, lifestyle and consumerism in the operation of social positioning: an approach he incidentally called, in Distinction, “a ‘vulgar’ critique of ‘pure’ critiques”.
Obsessively identifying that which we consider socially “below” us is an aspect of the vulgar that is played out spectacularly in a collection to which Clark and Phillips give ample space: Chanel autumn/winter 2014-15, designed by Karl Lagerfeld. The collection was originally presented in Paris’s Grand Palais, which had been painstakingly converted into a giant budget supermarket for the show, complete with discount posters and brightly coloured shopping trolleys. The garments in the collection exploited some of the crassest stereotypes about who might shop in such a store, at times producing a repulsive glamorisation of poverty – several models walked down the runway-come-aisle in tattered and ripped sweatpants, for instance.
Moreover, the discount posters touted wares marked up, not down, by 20 to 50 per cent. This was clearly the wealthy playing at looking poor. So what to make of such an ambivalent flirtation with “vulgarity”? Here, Phillips’s background in psychoanalysis sets up a helpful – and novel – framework. “Psychoanalysis is basically about what people do with the unacceptable in themselves and in others,” he says. “The vulgar is part of the vocabulary for the unacceptable. It seems to me that the so-called vulgar are the scapegoats of good taste. In other words, we’re constituting our good taste by mocking somebody else’s supposed bad taste.” That identifying vulgarity should be so key to constituting ourselves might account for the obsessional detail with which the faux budget supermarket was created in the Chanel show. It included more than 100,000 wares, at least 500 of these repackaged with jocular Chanel branding (for instance, garbage bags labelled “sac plus belle” instead of “sac poubelle”). The fact that these items were then marked up as luxury objects (that is, made inaccessible to many who shop in budget supermarkets) seems to speak of the double operation, in psychoanalytic terms, of the vulgar: it must be clearly identified and made ridiculous in order to be rejected and cast off. “It’s entirely to do with dominating somebody, even if it’s secret,” says Phillips. “Because really it’s based on contempt.”
This assertion marks the re-entry of the elephant in the room, because if vulgarity is predicated on class contempt, it is also predicated on misogyny. A glance around the section of the exhibition centred around the definition “Extreme bodies” intimates this, even if Phillips’s text leaves it unstated. Divided into two sub-sections – “Exposed Bodies” and “Exaggerated Bodies” – the room features a topless one-piece bathing suit by Rudi Gernreich, a buttock-skimming Courrèges minidress, a butt-enhancing 1996 “faux-cul” bustle bag by Vivienne Westwood for Louis Vuitton, and the much-copied punk Tits top by Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. These garments expose or exaggerate the features that generally make the female body “other” to the male body (breasts, fuller thighs, wider hips), and it is these features that are being policed when such outfits are labelled vulgar, or, to use Phillips’s term, “unacceptable”. An oppressive cultural inheritance pervades this scene — you can look as far back as Aristotle to find descriptions of the female body as materially excessive (and providing raw “matter” for reproduction rather than the, supposedly superior, “form” given by the male) – and the legacy of such dichotomies has been vigorously upheld and given new formulations by the Christian church for centuries, as well as by writers of pseudo-scientific tracts such as Otto Weininger’s atrocious 1903 book Sex and Character. The exposure of “feminine attributes” continues to set off moral panic today, with breastfeeding, nipple slips and wardrobe malfunctions regularly lampooned by the tabloid press as somehow inherently shameful (or, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite words, “disgusting”). “Vulgar” is another word we use for disciplining the female body.
But like the double operation of obsessive fixation and class contempt identified in the Chanel show, the denigration of female or feminised attributes seems to pivot between disgust and fetishistic desire. “For some people vulgarity is the precondition for sexual excitement,” writes Phillips in the exhibition catalogue. One exhibit that could’ve brought home this ambivalence was the garment chosen to illustrate “mutton dressed up as lamb”. Instead, this was given over to one of the few items of men’s clothing in The Vulgar: Clark has chosen a suit from Electric Eye, Walter van Beirendonck’s spring/summer 2016 menswear collection, which is cut from a print of children’s drawings. The implication is that a grown man wearing a childish print expresses the sentiment of the phrase. This seems a euphemism that purposefully evades the usage of “mutton dressed up as lamb”: it’s an epithet aimed at humiliating women who are judged to project, through dress and makeup, a sexual availability deemed unsuitable for their age. I ask Clark about this choice. “I couldn’t have that as a woman’s dress because” – she pauses and places her hand on her heart – “solidarity. I couldn’t stage women within that idea because it’s so awful and so humiliating.” It’s understandable: “mutton dressed up as lamb” is a term that whips up a perfect intersectional storm of class contempt, misogyny and ageism – all under the banner of male desire.
This is where I feel I’ve had enough of the vulgar. Heading towards the exit, I pass through the opening display of the exhibition and pause. Here, a collection of classicising evening dresses are on show, all chiffons, folds, and drapes. There is an exquisite 1955 pleated jersey dress by Madame Grès (a pinnacle of taste, surely?) and immaculate Grecian smocks by Sophia Kokosalaki. The curators’ intention is to set the scene by reflecting on the cyclical nature of fashion and the fact that no dress is truly classic or timeless. But I cannot help but think of these pieces as embodiments of the no-win situation set up by the charge of vulgarity. Even the simplest constituent elements of women’s dress – plain fabric draped over a feminised form – can be judged vulgar, because it is not the envelope that matters: it is the female body itself that is targeted, desired, and ultimately humiliated when the vulgar is invoked.