The only way design historians can deal with something as volatile and nearly uncatchable as attitudes has to be material. Manners and behaviours are understood from the intrinsic and superficial characteristics of the objects in analysis, whose very materiality inform our reading of history and help us generate new thoughts and question about the past and the present.
The exhibition The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican Art Gallery, deals with the material qualities of fashion objects in order to problematize the very notion of vulgarity. The exhibition articulates as a conversation between exhibition-maker Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, for whom vulgarity seems to be a negotiation between matters of class, gender, acceptability and respect of the rules, with the question of authenticity as overarching theme. The exhibition features contemporary designs alongside historical costumes and objects, dating back to the Renaissance, thematically organised to conform to the different definitions of ‘vulgar’ individuated by Philips. These definitions, both historical and conceptual, lead the visitor through the exhibition space, where ‘vulgarity’ itself is translated into the objects on display and in their spatial and ideal relationship with one another.
Instead of offering a review of the exhibition, we decided to reflect on the impact it had on us as visitors and design historians, accounting for the complex practice of fashion-exhibition making and considering the whole display as a compound designed object on its own right. Walking around the exhibition, which sees the presence of flamboyant designs from Galliano, Margiela, Vivienne Westwood and Philip Treacy amongst others, we were drawn to one particular detail of the silhouettes: their hairdos.
Wigs are not present on all the mannequins, and maybe it is their absence in some part of the exhibition what has drawn us to the ones that are there. The nature of wigs in the exhibition is bi-folded: they are exhibition props, created ad hoc for the exhibition; they are also designed objects on their own right, not only contributing to the narrative of the exhibit, but indeed telling their own story. As props, wigs cannot overshadow the ‘fashion’: they have instead to support the clothes and objects dressing the mannequins, the things which are actually part of the checklist and drive the storytelling of the display. The wigs paired with historical garments are usually an interpretation of the hairstyle worn in a particular period; for contemporary outfits, wigs might be inspired by the look appeared on the catwalk, but this is not straightforward: the variety of materials used is a proof of this.
In terms of the kind of network they stand for, they represent an insight of the kind of holistic work a curator does in order to. Most of the wigs present in the exhibition are made by Angelo Seminara, a long-term collaborator of Judith Clark, a hairstylist and designer whose signature is clearly visible even when his creations are re-enactments of historical artefacts (be it hairstyles or other iconic wigs). Stemming out from a conversation between the maker and the curator, they encapsulate the concept of each section of the exhibition, populating the display and helping the message to get through more fluidly. This gives us something to think about the practice of curating, and how the curator has to holistically approach the task, piecing together different abilities and sensibilities and building a space in which all these stances harmonically work together and generate meaning.
As objects, the wigs designed for this exhibition also affects our perception of the historical past. They invite the audience to question the general knowledge and meaning of wigs. When looking at 18th century portraits of noble men and women with extensively decorated and powdered hairstyles, perfection is the obvious. What is hidden beyond these hair creations is less observed when interpreting and appropriating historical dress for various purposes and formats. It is perhaps this fault line that Clark and Seminara aim to highlight as ‘vulgar’. The fizzy and dishevelled look of the wigs shown on the mannequins gives a notion of imperfection – a concept not obviously considered when thinking about wigs in an historical context. The wigs represents an exquisite fashionable item and is at the same time smelly, itchy, heavy burden that hides a shaved skull.
The concept of vulgarity, as interpreted by the curators, gets into the wigs in a subtle manner. The wigs are designed exhibition props yet serve as crucial extensions of the objects on display to support their historical narrative. Authenticity, in the interpretation of history, is marked as an unstable concept, which invites us to a continuous rewriting of history.