Subversive Fashion @ Barbican

Subvert [verb], to undermine the power and authority of (an established system or institution.

Midway through the current Subversive Fashion exhibition at Barbican Gallery I turned to my friend and said ‘this is lacking a bit of oomf isn’t it?!’ He looked at me and nodded, with a tinge of disappointment in his eyes. The notion of fashion being subversive would suggest something shocking, sexy or unusual. Unfortunately this exhibition, while incredibly lovely, was missing something. It left a hole, when we departed I was hungry, and not just for my dinner.

I think the staging of the show may be what made it feel so dull. The overly dim lighting faded out all the vitality from the clothing – the complete opposite of what you need on a Friday night exhibition trip.

This show does succeed in telling us that the need to be subversive is nothing new. It reminds us of the notion of excess in relation to vulgarity, a word that can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes it is equated as being perverse or provocative. However, the exhibition begins with handwoven lace, something that is at once delicate and gentle.

The exhibition spans centuries from 200 year old mantuas to contemporary Prada, miu miu and Moschino. Perhaps this is too much, it doesn’t flow easily, and while a lack of cohesion is not necessarily a negative point, it should at least be a topic of conversation from gallery to gallery. However, many of the exhibitions different parts seem to be completely alien to what comes before and after them, so the whole visitor experience is a little bewildering.

The most heartbreaking aspect of this whole exhibition is just how much of contemporary fashion is subversive, and how it has been completely excluded from the display. One only has to think of Vetements and Balenciaga to know that the subversive is anything but boring. Barbican’s show was a little safe for my liking and dare I say it a little tame.

The Barbican exhibition is by no means bad in anyway, just a little boring.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is on display at Barbican until 5 February 2017


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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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