What is good or bad taste? That’s the question that loosely underpins The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, a new exhibition now on at the Barbican. Conceived by curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, this unforgettable exhibition attempts to showcase the many sides of vulgarity in fashion and the mutating definition of “taste” throughout the ages. There are show-stopping garments from over 40 designers throughout 500 years of fashion, from an 18th century Court Mantua dress to the eclectic geek-chic of Gucci’s Alessandro Michele.

Mondrian Dress by Yves Saint Laurent, 1980s, Courtesy Manchester City Galleries 

It’s a show as much about the evolution of language as it is about fashion. The word “vulgar" here isn’t necessarily a pejorative; as Clark says, “It’s meant to celebrate, not to humiliate.” Spread over the 11 rooms of the exhibition are Phillips’ witty, thought-provoking notes on the various concepts of vulgarity. Some are pretty straightforward, like the “Exaggerated Bodies” room featuring Maison Margiela’s shoulder pads made from wigs and the Pop Art-heavy “Too Popular” section with Andy Warhol’s Souper Dress. But others require a bit more thought: the “Puritan” room is full of intricate lace collars from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as two recent outfits, including one by Marc Jacobs, that riff on a puritan dress. Here, Phillips explains the origins of vulgarity. In the context of “restraint” in fashion, the lace and collars of the 16th century symbolised purity and restraint but eventually became larger and exaggerated as people started to show off their class and wealth.

Cotton crochet lace collar, 1880s, Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath

While many fashion exhibitions (including the Barbican’s 2014 The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective) tend to have more of a linear focus, The Vulgar is a delightfully left-field affair – never mind an absolute visual feast. It’s a show that leaves you wondering, pondering, and full of questions.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is on at the Barbican Art Gallery until 5 February 2017. For more information, visit Barbican.org.uk

Text by Jainnie Cho