Nicky Haslam

Halloween hire

Textbook familiarity characterises the Barbican’s new exhibition, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined – and a lack of anything actually vulgar

To use a vulgar phrase, I can’t get my head around this exhibition. It seems anything but ‘vulgar’. Daintily laid out and dimly lit in the gloomier cloisters of Fortress Barbican is a series of dresses — the chaps hardly get a look-in, save for some of those white-knee-britched, jaboty, gold-laced-coat get-ups that people like Philip Green struggle into for their fancy-dress parties — some ancient, some modern, a lot very pretty, a few laughably ludicrous; anyone wanting a frightening clown costume for Halloween will find inspiration here. The clothes are, for the most part, exquisitely made. Many are elegant, and several supremely extravagant; however, the organisers of the exhibition seem to be trying to lump them all into the ‘vulgar’ basket. Which seems odd.

The earliest shown, those wide-panniered ‘infanta’ skirts (for keeping one’s dwarf under?) with bosom-eliminating bodices, miraculous with their glittering appliquéd embroidery on wonderfully dull-coloured silks, are clearly works of art as much as fashion — as indeed are some of, say, Galliano’s more extreme confections — but are they vulgar? There must have been a reason why they wanted this fantastic extreme silhouette. It could possibly have been religious. Did the Spanish court, where they originated, see their monarchs as being the embracers of their people, who could metaphorically shelter under those skirts, the Queen of Heaven protecting her flock?

An 'Infanta' dress at the Barbican's exhibition 'The Vulgar'. Photo: © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

An ‘Infanta’ dress at the Barbican’s exhibition ‘The Vulgar’. Photo: © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

There is almost always a reason why fashions evolve, just as in interior decoration; if one analyses the early shape of panelling — a rectangle with the corners scooped out — one realises that it’s the shape of the animal hides our ancestors tacked up in their draughty stone huts.

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