This past December, in between the British Fashion Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, and the Chanel Métiers d’Art show at the Ritz Hotel, in Paris, I managed to visit two very timely fashion exhibitions. Both of them deal with the interplay between good taste and vulgarity—and, in my opinion, with the state of fashion today.

“Tenue Correcte Exigée (Appropriate Dress Required),” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, is a tour de force spanning five centuries of fashion history, presenting examples of transgression against the codes of “decent” dressing and ultimately laying waste to the notion that there are clothes that should be worn only for specific occasions, in the right season, and according to size. Gender identity and class issues are the main focus, but my favorite section is simply titled “Trop C’est Trop! (Too Much Is Too Much!),” which features a selection of centuries-old garments organized in categories that read just like this season’s trend list: too much volume, too much color, too much transparency, too much decoration, too much body, and so on. Denis Bruna, the show’s curator, managed to put the surprise I sometimes feel after seeing the new collections into historical perspective. On the first page of the exhibition catalog, he sums it all up with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “The most scandalous aspect of any scandal is that one gets used to it.”

“The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined,” at the Barbican, in London, is a much more conceptual and intellectually ambitious project that uses the different interpretations of the word “vulgar” to examine fashion’s continuous process of making rules, only to promptly break them. The show explores the “vulgarity” of copying, overt sexuality, exhibitionism, popularity, and banality, among other themes, presenting current and historical clothes and accessories side-by-side. Once again, most of what we saw on the spring runways could have a place of honor in the display cases of the museum. It’s fitting that toward the end of the exhibition, the curators ask, “If the vulgar is always reactive to ruling standards of taste and manners, what happens to vulgarity when there is no consensus about standards or taste or style or aspiration? What happens to the vulgar when the desire for excess is the norm?”

Clockwise, from top left: An installation from “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined,” at the Barbican, in London, 2016; an installation from “Tenue Correcte Exigée,” at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, 2016; the show’s catalog; pages from the catalog; another installation from “The Vulgar”; the show’s catalog; a third installation from “The Vulgar.”

Barbican: Michael Bowles for Getty Images (3); Les Art Decoratifs: Luc Boegly; Books: Josephine Schiele

With that question on my mind, it was incredibly refreshing to come back home to work on this special issue with our guest creative director, Marc Ascoli. Marc is one of the most celebrated image-makers of the past three decades and an arbiter of elegance and simplicity. The idea of collaborating with him germinated last fall, at the end of a confusing and challenging season in which fashion houses played musical chairs with their designers and the calendar was thrown out of sync with the “See now, buy now” revolution.

Ascoli, working with our editors, applied his exacting design sense to salute powerful women, starting with our cover stars Donatella Versace, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lopez, Taraji P. Henson, and Kate Moss.

In exclusive interviews, these rule-breakers reflect on how they have reached the top of their fields by transcending conventional notions of femininity; they come from diverse backgrounds but share the drive to “own” who they are, and to advocate for women in their respective professions. Meanwhile, Marilyn Minter, whose photographs, paintings, and videos addressing issues of beauty and the female body are currently the subject of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, opened up her whimsical house in upstate New York; and the writer Arthur Lubow traveled to Turin to investigate three Italian artists who are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Our fashion stories also focused on strength through diversity. Steven Meisel’s ode to transformation brings to mind the effortless grace of the late China Machado; Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott’s shoot with Kate Moss is a Monica Vitti–like study on sensuality and naïveté; and Collier Schorr’s images of our latest model discovery reference the famous ’80s stylist Ray Petri’s Buffalo Girls.

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