Reflection on Judith Clark’s Dress Talk – Researching and Exhibiting “The Vulgar”

by Aric Reviere

On Monday, February 8th, the MA Course had the pleasure of attending a talk given by the curator,  dress historian and Professor of Fashion & Museology, London College of Fashion, Judith Clark, about the exhibition she is planning entitled “Vulgar.” To be curated with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and shown at the Barbican later in 2016, the exhibition traces, visually, various occurrences of vulgarity present in haute couture level fashion from a myriad of time periods. From Clark’s perspective, the exhibition lends itself to a deeper exploration of the very definition (or even definitions) of the word “vulgar” and the nuances, in meaning, associated with those societal constructs. From Clark’s explanation of the evolution of the exhibition concept and the subsequent open discussion, several themes related to the construct of the “vulgar” emerged, namely, the term’s violent connotational undercurrents and its implication of the inferiority of the common. But most of all, I was struck by Clark’s curatorial process as a mix between the academic traditionalism of the discipline and a refreshingly contemporary emphasis on the design of the exhibition as a work of art itself.

Installation photograph of Clark’s exhibition, A Concise Dictionary of Dress, illustrating Clark’s unique approach to exhibiting dress and keen curatorial eye.

From my perspective, “vulgar” derives its plethora of meanings based upon its symbiotic relationship with a certain society or culture’s hegemonic ideal. In other words, the term “vulgar” (from my perspective) highlights discursive, subversive, or simply non-normative behavior, identity performance, and obviously dress that encroaches upon and in so doing highlights the fragility of a hegemonic ideal. For example, the New Negro aesthetic championed by Alain Locke in his 1925 manifesto of the same title sought to elevate the status of African Americans by promoting African American literature, arts, etc. As an extenuation of that cultural agenda, elite African American dress popular during the late Harlem Renaissance appropriated the white middle class aesthetic and, in what was considered a vulgar display of new found wealth, often exaggerated its elements in an almost “Dandy” fashion. James Van Der Zee’s almost ethnographic photographs of the period demonstrates these types of fashions and identities performed by citizens of Harlem as they actively claimed agency in a shifting racial power structure. But a contemporary audience can imagine how vulgar those images must have appeared to white audiences of the period used to popular images equating blackness with the tradition of American minstrelsy. Therefore, my main take away from the talk and the subsequent notion is summarized by the word agency. In what ways can the vulgar, and actively performing the vulgar, award a wearer agency within a given socio-political context?

New definitions of the Vulgar, Adam Phillips. "The vulgar reminds us of the tyranny of the real thing."
New definitions of the Vulgar, Adam Phillips. “The vulgar reminds us of the tyranny of the real thing.”

About Dress Talks: As a part of the Courtauld’s Sackler Research Forum, this series of lunchtime events brings together a roster of invited speakers to talk about their current research, and encourage discussion about dress history now. Each term academics, curators and dress and fashion industry professionals will share their insight and analysis of an aspect of dress and fashion history to provide a platform for new ideas and approaches to the subject. Look out for future events here.