The Belvedere’s Winterpalais takes a walk on fashion’s exquisite ugly side exploring vulgar fashion

Plunging necklines, exposed straps, emblazoned logos: vulgarity is beauty’s tacky cousin. But what is vulgarity exactly – and who decides? Adam Philips, a psychoanalyst and Judith Clark, a curator, created the exhibition The Vulgar – Fashion Redefined to address that elusive question with historic dress, ready-to-wear and haute couture supported by manuscripts, photography and film.

First shown at the Barbican in London, the 120 carefully selected examples span 500 years of tasteless tailoring from the Renaissance to contemporary dress: a treasure trove of items that designers and brands would prefer to forget, with Yves Saint Laurent, Miu Miu, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Moschino, Pam Hogg, and Christian Dior among the guilty.

Vulgar Fashion
© Guy Marineau

Philips and Clark chart the territory meticulously, not only offering a definition of vulgarity but categorizing it into exaggerated, over-the-top, and over-exposed. This gives context to the situational and chronological motivators that define taste; like a gaudy corset, it adds structure to these fascinating glitches in the history of human decoration.

What were they thinking?

By its very nature, fashion is about appearance – and spectacle trumps subtlety. To some extent, this makes it an inherently vulgar enterprise, trading upon trends, sex appeal, excess and kitsch to ensure the wearer is noticed. We see this idea at work in Walter Van Beirendonck’s elephant dress, replete with phallic trunk dangling in the front or agent provocateur Vivienne Westwood’s painted breasts on a white blouse. Arguably, the greatest aesthetic nightmare comes courtesy of John Galliano – a pair of inflatable lips, to be precariously perched on the head as a monstrous vision of a hat.

© Moschino

But vulgarity isn’t always about too much – sometimes less is less. The topless bathing suit had its day in the sun on the hazy beaches of the Côte d’Azur during the permissive, hedonistic 1960s. Now, the monokini – created by Vienna-born American designer Rudi Gernreich – feels frozen in time, considered so vulgar it had to be pinned to a display, far away from the curves of a mannequin, let alone a human body.

Reveal and conceal

Modesty is no guarantee for taste, however – one look at the ostentatious puritan lace and bonnets on exhibit is enough to sink that notion. A full-length Maison Margiela dress manages to make even full concealment lurid, seemingly dripping off of a damp model like a bespoke vision of a wet T-shirt contest.

© Fashion Museum

Unsurprisingly, the baroque era’s fondness for extravagant displays made it a golden age of grotesque, clearly seen in an 18th-century mantua (an elaborate lady’s dress) with a skirt spanning 2.5 meters. Courtiers and courtesans showed off cleavages pushed up and almost spilling from embroidered stomachers, accessorizing with ornate fans littered with flying cherubs. John Galliano (a repeat offender) brought the principle back in his historicist collections for Dior, appropriating baroque style and scale to evoke pride in the wearer and envy in the observer.

The Vulgar provokes for the sake of discussion, granting insights on human nature via bizarre anomalies of fashion – after all, you can’t define good without establishing what’s bad. And like life itself, it’s all about perspective: as co-curator Philips succinctly puts it, “Vulgarity exposes the scandal of good taste.”

The Vulgar

Belvedere Winterpalais, March 3 – June 25, Daily 10:00–18:00