Bad taste is good! Follow Ashutosh Kukreja as he investigates the role of vulgarity versus class in fashion, while exploring the complexities of good and bad tastes in the industry.
The carefully created perfect/imperfect image of the world of fashion and art as we know it would not be quite the same if it wasn’t for the intricate balance between sophistication and vulgarity. After all, what is fashion, but a dialogue between vulgarity and refined taste? The dialogue being a dynamic one as well; ever changing in its definition of what good and bad taste is, after all. In other words, vulgarity is the essence that drives fashion into the future by defying boundaries and inspiring people to think – a characteristic that has been channeled and reflected by many artists. It’s crafted to be condemned and cherished; it’s created to be considered and comprehended. It’s the blemish on the pristine, porcelain skin that makes it human – and that’s what makes it beautiful.
In the context of the design industry, vulgarity could perhaps best be described as one side of fashion’s coin, the flip side of which represents sophisticated conformity. It’s the profane, non-compliant force, in conjunction with the sartorial accordance and social acceptance that accelerates fashion steadily through time – if it wasn’t for vulgarity, fashion would never progress.
Vulgarity is anything that’s out of the ordinary conventions of dressing for the era or the culture concerned; it is perhaps a notch ‘too sexy’, ‘too risqué’, ‘too flashy’, ‘too weird’, ‘too tacky’, ‘too loud’ or just too fucking much! And falling out of line with societal norms dictating the dress codes of its citizens earns it the label of ‘bad’ taste – and fashion revels in it. It flourishes in the scandal it’s unacceptability causes, while it displays its audacity to overlook regulations. It revels in its so-called bad taste and the attention it receives from its shock factor on its basic premise that ‘bad’ taste is essentially good! Vulgarity creates an impact, makes a statement, raises brows and provokes discussion. And as it does, it inspires aesthetics of extravagance, excessiveness, eccentricity, seduction, pastiche, kitsch and camp in fashion – contributing greatly to the flavor and artfulness of the industry.
Vulgarity is excessive in its ambition and authentic in its approach, as it emanates an inspired aura and reeks of raw, unprocessed, uncensored creativity. In a broader perspective of the term, it represents a sense of unapologetic and fearless freedom. It provides a departure from the binding social conformities into a world where rules and limits don’t really exist. And in many ways, vulgarity is the basic human instinct – accessing and channeling the unfiltered and unrefined thoughts and ideas entrenched in our subconscious – free from the pretension and snobbery of the social civilizations that we are brought up in and taught to treasure socially acceptable sophistication and class exclusively.
Vulgarity is authentic and yet at the same time it’s fantastical, daring to delve into our deepest fantasies, pointing to a version of ourselves we unabashedly aspire to be; a version of our actualized selves in our fantasies. In simpler words, vulgarity is the reality to our fantasy.
Vulgarity is the flag-bearer of evolution in the industry, and it is what instigates change in fashion over time. Vulgarity drives this dynamic industry into the future by constantly challenging prevailing dressing norms and even the notions of the socially dictated ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tastes, and perhaps even changing them (what makes an item good enough to be called tasteful vis-àvis something that’s proclaimed tasteless?).
An interesting example can be taken from one of the scenes of the classic American romcom Pretty Woman (1990), directed by Garry Marshall, when Vivian, the protagonist of the movie, who plays a prostitute at Hollywood Boulevard, goes shopping and is refused service at a boutique because of her attire that’s shown to be glaringly inappropriate and, if I may, vulgar for the time. However, I doubt whether Vivian’s outfit of a cropped white vest top and blue mini, paired with thigh high boots and a red jacket tied around the waist, would turn any heads now on a regular day in Los Angeles. So what was considered totally socially unacceptable about 30 years ago is now regular enough to the point where it’s regarded as one of the simplistic outfits on a hot day in L.A.. And that only brings to light the fact that these rules for good and bad taste are far from set in stone.
However, as fickle as they may be, the rules for what’s good and what’s bad in the world of fashion aren’t laid down by a single entity, rather it’s a number of factors that determine the mood of the industry. The depiction of the product, the image of the brand, the image of the designer and means of advertisement are just some of the elements that provide context to support the assessment of the product as vulgar or chic, but many factors exist on the other end of the spectrum as well. Time period, culture, target consumer (the age and sex demographic, the mood of the current consumer, etcetera), the oh-so powerful modern day fashion figures (think celebrity endorsements, bloggers, influencers and Instagram models), the products pushed forth in social media campaigns, and magazine editorials are just some of the determining factors in what’s classified as good taste, and what’s labeled bad’ – going on to show the sheer subjectivity of the notion of tastefulness, thanks to the volatile factors upon which it’s based.
But if there’s one thing that remains constant despite the unpredictable factors vulgarity rests on, it is the permanence of the non-conforming, vulgar ‘bad’ fashion that changes, but never goes away. Moreover, this illustrates that vulgarity isn’t a mere concept pertinent to the creatives in the art and design industries, but it’s a concept that also affects the lives and perceptions of the consumers of these industries as well – the society – especially with all the negative connotations attached to the term.
To describe something as ‘vulgar’, in the general sense of speaking, is interpreted in an inherently negative light; as something to be looked down upon or something that’s often frowned upon, rather than appreciated for its uniqueness and rarity. Unfortunately, the word ‘vulgarity’ carries with it the social stigma of artless ugliness and a lack of substance – however, more often than not the word is perhaps the best definition of art, even more so in the contemporary context. Given that the purpose of art is to question, challenge and reconsider values, ethics, rules, norms, and traditions, there’s probably nothing more dutiful to the discipline of art than vulgarity, constantly defining and redefining societal archetypes and sparking debate and discussion that brings change. And that is something that makes this concept even more relevant in society today.
Interpreting the ethos of vulgarity in modern society, it finds itself comfortably at home, considering this is the age of empowerment and an era to question, reassess, challenge and reinterpret mainstream notions. It is the generation of individuals who celebrate their individuality and freedom, and they reserve the right to determine their values, ethics and morals for themselves, without having to fall in line with age-old conventions or stick to dusty rule books. It is an age that celebrates differences, instead of condemning them, and embraces new ideas and notions with open arms. Through the very notion of the ‘vulgar’, vulgarity uncovers and lays bare the key issues of sexism and elitism in society. For instance, the women who are labeled vulgar for wearing revealing outfits and slut-shamed are intensely objectified because of their outfits; or a trend previously deemed vulgar adopted by persons of fame or fortune that suddenly loses the negative connotations attached to it. And in doing so, it triggers the much needed conversation and debate to promote awareness, consciousness and sensitivity to issues of the like.
Even through its work, vulgarity has made countless contributions to society as well as the industry, whether it was to be an emblem of a socio-political movement, or simply as an advocate for more creative freedom to designers and artists to explore and depict their craft, in a more accepting, appreciative and understanding environment. A famous example here is that of esteemed British designer Mary Quant’s iconic miniskirt in the 60s. Although it would barely get a second look in today’s date, when
Quant dropped the mini skirt in the mid-1960s, it sent Londoners into a maddening frenzy. Coinciding with the invention of the birth control pill, the mini-skirt wasn’t just a fashionable garment, but a symbol of sexual liberation for women and a celebration of their femininity. It was called obscene, it was called vulgar, and every other name in the book as the rapidly catching-on trend irreverently defied social sartorial codes with a hemline floating mere inches from the hips.
From the whorish shade to the colour of the perfect lady, the red lipstick evolved, and from strippers’ footwear to a fancySunday-brunch-kinda shoe, platform heels changed. And so what’s vulgar today may be the epitome of class tomorrow, while what’s elegant today may have been the peak of profanity in the past. As with other things, vulgarity is one that’s ever evolving, ever changing and ever transforming. It would perhaps be an impossible task to pose a permanent example of the socalled bad taste against the good. However, it is this very impermanence, unpredictability and whimsicality that make this phenomenon called fashion so utterly beautiful. Obscenity is beautiful. Profanity is beautiful. Vulgarity is beautiful.
You can read more of Ashutosh’s work in the coming issues of London Runway.