Coco Chanel once said “Vulgarity is the ugliest word in our language. I stay in the game to fight it.” But what is vulgarity?

Meaning tastelessness, grossness, excess and lack of refinement – all of these stand as synonyms of vulgarity.

But is it as simple as anything being distasteful? In its upcoming exhibition, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, the Barbican challenges the notion of taste in fashion, from renaissance to the present day.

“Vulgarity exposes the scandal of good taste.” Adam Phillips

The exhibition will explore the evolution of the idea of vulgarity, inviting visitors to question the way they define it and the reasons it is such a contested term. The showcase will as well demonstrate “how fashion through the ages actively breaks with and revises taste to create new expressions of style, often celebrating, courting or exploiting so-called vulgarity and its possible pleasures.” (Source: Press Release)

Conceived by exhibition-maker Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the exhibition will feature looks from modern and contemporary designers such as Walter van Beirendonck, Chloé, Christian Dior, Pam Hogg, Christian Lacroix, Jeanne Lanvin, Moschino, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Viktor & Rolf, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood.

With over 120 exhibits, the exhibition weaves together historic dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion as well as textile ornamentation, manuscripts, photography and film. The installation will illustrate how taste is a mobile concept.

The Vulgar. 18th Century Mantua. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath

The Vulgar. 18th Century Mantua. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, said ;

“Playing with juxtapositions, different themes and vistas, Judith Clark and Adam Phillips have set the stage for visitors to wonder, ponder, question, reflect or just revel in why some costumes are considered vulgar, how that changes through time, context and experience.”


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined opens at Barbican Art Gallery on 13 October 2016.

Written by Jessica Leclercq

Edited by Christina Wright


The Barbican Press Release:

All images obtained by Media Relations Manager.