Vulgarity: The Basic Instinct

As Joan Juliet Buck writes, in-your-face is never out of style.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
As Joan Juliet Buck writes, in-your-face is never out of style.
Moschino fall/
winter 2016
Moschino fall/ winter 2016

Rhinestone-studded condom dresses, peekaboo pudenda, mules as thick as cement blocks; nipples, side boobs, no VPL because no P; orange hair. The Real Housewives. You know, today: The age of vulgarity. '

At the Barbican in London this month, an exhibition titled, “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined,” conceived by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and curator Judith Clark, explores 500 years of clothes that were perceived as excessive, sexualised, kitsch, or camp. It’s going to be a roar of a show.

Fashion has always used excess to stand apart from mere clothing, and vulgarity has long been the tool of revolution, protest, and self-assertion. After the French Revolution, women known as Merveilleuses paraded through the gardens of the PalaisRoyal in sheer white dresses that were soaking wet, the better to reveal every detail of their naked bodies.

From the 19 century onward, designers who wanted to make their mark shocked with overkill, or radical restraint: Charles Frederick Worth’s crinolines were too wide; Poiret’s skirts, too hobbling; Schiaparelli’s colours, too bright; Saint Laurent’s suits, too masculine; Mugler’s and Montana’s shoulders, too big; Galliano’s and McQueen’s fancy dress, too exuberant; Alaïa’s sweaters, too black; Jil Sander’s uniforms, too dour; Versace’s frocks, too sexy.

Fashion moved forward, from outrage to outrage, setting new standards that had the elders and the bourgeois shrieking about vulgarity and invoking self-respect.

The root of the word “vulgar” is vulgus, Latin for “the common people,” the great unwashed. The historical truth is that the Roman emperors were immeasurably more vulgar than the people they ruled, and gave in to their appetites with abandon; for details, read Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, particularly Nero, Tiberius, and Caligula.

Romanemperor vulgarity is hedonism run amok. The core of vulgarity is what George Bernard Shaw called the life force, what the Chinese call chi, what parents of teenagers call hormones, what social workers call testosterone, what Freud called the id. Vulgarity creates a fraternity of the vulgar, united in the knowledge that humankind is base, and any attempt to rise above lust, greed, and aggression is a pretension best left to the weak.

Vulgarity would position itself as something true and raw and real, the opposite of refinement. When constricted by the appearance of civilisation, vulgarity is Gordon Gekko’s seminal “Greed is good” from a now old film, Wall Street.

Vulgarity is bankers bellowing in expensive downtown restaurants gotten up to look like taverns, expressing their primacy as top-dog primates among other top-dog primates, far from the eyes of lesser primates, who can’t afford said restaurants.

It’s wives who submit to being remade in fantastical proportions; it’s gold faucets in the bathrooms and a wet bar in every room; it’s bling and glare and decibels that match the piercing marching music of the Ottoman Empire’s janissaries, whose first tactic was to scare their enemies half to death with percussion.

On the other hand—that being a hand sheathed in an elbowlength leopard-print glove with “Slut”embroidered on it in pink glitter thread—there is a true, if low, pleasure in breaking the bounds of good taste and propriety. Decibels do the trick. Tiny children emit piercing shrieks for the sheer fun of rending the air.

Rock ’n’ roll is all decibels. Harley-Davidsons are decibels on wheels. Soccer hooligans are decibels with striped scarves. Decibels can be visual. Why else would some colours be called loud? The desire for loud clothing can come from a desire to create a social ruckus.

I’ve owned a series of metallic leather jackets, bought, each time, in the hope that the jacket will do the heavy swearing for me and signal to all comers that I’m a tough babe. This tactic has never worked, and the jackets are gone until the next idle moment at the department store sales rack. The idea of vulgarity is attractive as shorthand for the concept of badass.

The leopard-print underwear that Mrs. Robinson wore in The Graduate signalled that she was a sexual predator, and leopard prints still carry that dirty-lingerie aura. When leather jeans first appeared in the ’70s, they seemed the height of expensive bad hygiene. Within 20 years, they became the Sunday-night uniform at Swifty’s.

A partial list of vulgar artifacts includes the old standbys of marabou mules, white patent stilettos, ankle bracelets, three-inch nails, glitter gloss, and turquoise eyeshadow. All of these have been recycled into actual fashion as ironic comments on vulgarity in a conceptual loop that comes from the way deconstruction was taught at the Ivy League colleges in the ’80s and ’90s.

Jeremy Scott’s fall collection for Moschino is full of leather jackets, leather bustiers, oversize bows, torn denim, and half-burnt party dresses. If you want to wear irony, he’s your man. Vulgarity is on the red carpet, on the runway, in the restaurants, and at all the parties.

It rules television; it animates the Web. When the age of vulgarity pervades every facet of our lives, it’s a sure sign that it has almost run its course. It’s time for a new scandal.