Words by Jess Ralph
The Queen is dead, boys. And no, of course, we’re not referring to QE2. Dame Vivienne Westwood passed away on the 29th of December 2022, casting a sombre cloud of collective mourning across the fashion industry and leaving behind her a legacy of cultural influence so seismic and far reaching it is almost ungraspable. From architecting punk fashion in the mid ‘70s to her vocal climate activism in her later years, Westwood’s spirit had been one of constant reinvention, taste making and politicised provocation; using her boundless creative spirit and vehement absorption of references – art, politics, historical fashion, literature , the environment- to challenge convention and present a vision for change, both aesthetic and ideologically. She often quoted the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who said “Orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence.” She made clothes that forced you to think.
Westwood’s life reads like a twisted fairy tale, a story of rags to ridicule to recognition and finally, riches.
Photo Credit Ki Price
Born on the 8th of April 1941, she grew up in the Pennines before moving to Harrow aged 17 when her father acquired a local post office. Enrolling in Harrow Art School, she studied fashion for less than a term (“I didn’t like it, we had to draw all the time and I wanted to make clothes” she said retrospectively, briefly switching to silversmithing before deciding to train instead as an art teacher. After a whirlwind romance with toolmaker and Rolling Stones enthusiast Derek Westwood (married in ’62 , son Ben born in’ 63), Westwood was introduced and fell in love with one of her brother’s friends. The friend – a wiry art school dropout into situationist art and anarchist philosophy – was Malcom McLaren, and their (albeit deeply problematic) relationship would change the course of British fashion, music, and politics forever.
Westwood and McLaren went on to set up a succession of boutiques at the address of 430 Kings Road, London, each one dedicated to a singular look that McLaren hoped would capture the youth culture imagination, and that gave Westwood the opportunity to play around with how to make clothes that linked to political concepts and that told a story. The first of these boutiques was Let It Rock in ‘71, a nostalgic emporium of 50’s vinyl and Teddy Boy zoot suits, followed by Too Fast To Live, Too Young to Die in’ 73, which took stylistic cue from the leathers, studs, and badges of the Hells Angels.
However, it was the third incarnation of the Kings Road shop in ‘74 that struck the zeitgeist gold McLaren had been dreaming of, and where Westwood started to explore and hone the stylistic motifs and subversive fashion philosophy that came to define her. With its gigantic pink padded letter sign (inspired by the work of Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenberg), the garments at SEX took reference from Pin-up girls, fetishists and bondage gear( in McLaren’s words, “ England is the home of the flasher, we’re all closet perverts”) and increasingly the cut-up, ripped, safety pinned and provocative slogan t-shirts that came to be known as the classic punk look. Staffed by the formidable Jordan Rooke and future Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde, SEX became not only a shopping destination for the most daring of Sartorialists but something of an outsider’s community centre, a mecca and meeting hub for the arty Avant Garde, radical thinkers and disenfranchised, angry young creatives and musicians.
It was in SEX that McLaren held auditions for his latest situationist experiment, a pop group with an abrasive sound, anti-establishment sentiments, and a strong, shocking look: The Sex Pistols. Against a backdrop of mass youth unemployment and recession, the Pistols’ gained both popularity and infamy for their nihilistic posturing, chaotic television appearances, snarky tongues, and often violent gigs; top fodder for an alarmist, conservative tabloid press. And in every accompanying photo to a “Foul Mouthed Yobs” headline or OFCOM meltdown-inducing television interview there was the image of The Sex Pistols kitted out in Westwood’s latest designs. By the time the Never Mind the Bollocks album came out in’77, SEX had changed to Seditionaries – a statement of rejection against West End consumerism, a favourite hangout spot of Siouxsie Sioux, and where the iconic “Anarchy”, “Be Reasonable, Demand The Impossible” and “Destroy” shirts, along with bondage trousers were first put on the rails.
In the aftermath of Sid Vicious’ death in ‘79, Westwood for the first time looked back to historical fashions to inform the direction of her work – specifically, the swashbuckling, flounced shirt styles of the 18th century. In 1981, aged 40, she put on her first catwalk show which was retrospectively dubbed the “Pirate” collection ; “ Clothes that are made to go hunting and fishing in, climbing trees and running through the wilderness – cassette pack on your back, loincloth between your legs, gold braids in your hair, a modern day pirate” stated the shows press release. In contrast to the leathers and dark colours of Seditionaries, the Pirate collection was awash with colour, pattern, and romanticism – voluminous silk shirts, tassel scarves, embroidered waistcoats and frilled capri breeches- and perfectly timed to connect with the emerging Blitz Kid and New Romantic club culture. Pirate set the precedent for Westwood’s direction for further collections in the eighties – marrying the historical with street wear and street style and experimenting with deconstructed and unconventional approaches to tailoring.
“Nostalgia of Mud” in ‘82 full skirted silhouettes, Peruvian prints and underwear-as-outerwear, “Witches” in ‘83 occultism, Japanese Kimonos and the New York cool of Keith Haring, Hip Hop, and sportswear; the collection created the first ever high fashion trainer. Westwood and McLaren split in’85, also the year which she presented the collection that marked a “cardinal change” in her fashion direction; Mini Crini. In stark contrast to the strong, masculinized silhouettes (and desired athletic, gym honed body to match) of the era, the MinI Crini collection was a subversively sugary celebration of girlishness, evoking Victorian porcelain dolls, the costumes of the Ballet Russes and “the Queen as a child.” The “Crini” of the collection’s name was a shortening of “crinoline,” the 19th century multi-hooped, cage-like undergarment worn under skirts to give them volume.
Westwood not only shortened the name but slashed the length of the crinoline skirt, a statement on the sometimes-contradictory relationship between women’s dress and equality, that the crinoline represented “a mythology of restriction” and the mini-skirt “an equally dubious mythology of liberation,” according to fashion historian Caroline Evans.
Though by the end of the eighties Westwood had started to gain mass critical acclaim from her fashion designer peers, in the mainstream press it was another story. Her reputation already spoiled in conservative Britain’s eye because of her links to the punk movement, ( added no doubt to the fact she was a women convicted to her own creative vision, that kind of artistic self-belief is usually only allowed to pretentious men), she was routinely humiliated in television interviews and press appearances, her out-there designs subjected to mediaeval stocks-style mocking and ridicule.
However, it was in the 1990s that the tides started to turn, and Westwood started to cement herself in the public imagination as something akin to an alternative national treasure. She received the accolade of Fashion Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Council Awards in 1990 and then again 1991 (the only designer to be awarded the title in two consecutive years), and the following year received an OBE for her services to fashion design; characteristically visiting Buckingham Palace in a completely sheer skirt and knicker flashing Elizabeth II in the process. In the era of anti-fashion, when the prevailing look was either androgynous grunge or sleek minimalism, Westwood instead went Tatler Girl, revelling in maximalist Baroque decadence and clothes that parodied the historical upper classes.
Frivolity and heaving decolletage in renaissance printed, corseted bodices. Venetian Harlequins, courtly harlots, and leotards in the style of Leon Bakst’s costumes for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet Afternoon of the Faun in Voyage to Cythera in 1990, Codpieces on skirts and Tudor dominatrixes for Dressing Up in ‘91. The tartan and plaid bonanza of Anglomania in ‘93 (where Naomi Campbell famously tumbled on the catwalk in a pair of electric blue, mock croc platforms), and Kate Moss, powdered, rogued and topless coquettishly licking an ice cream in the Belle Epoque themed Cafe Society in’94. A voluptuous dressing up box for the post-modern, Gen X Marie Antionette. “Sex is the strongest influence on fashion, to play around with new sexual motifs is to be Avant Garde,” she said
Westwood had begun tutoring to fund her catwalk collections in the late eighties, and it was as Professor of Fashion at the Vienna Academy of Applied Arts that she met student Andreas Kronthaler. They married in 1993, forging a partnership that would see Kronthaler increasingly collaborate with Westwood on the creative direction of her designs- the label became “Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood” in 2016. As the millennium turned, Westwood reached new heights of both commercial and critical success; opening stores in Tokyo, New York and Milan and having a major retrospective dedicated to her at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
She also became actively and vocally involved with political, social, and environmental activism, with this reflecting in her garments in a way that had not been so visible since the days of punk. This was epitomised in the Propaganda collection of ‘05. Taking cue from the shock-factor slogan t-shirts of her Seditionaries era, clothes were emblazoned with the words “Branded” and “Propaganda” writ large, inspiration provided from an essay by Doors of Perception author Aldous Huxley, titled “Propaganda in a Democratic Society.” “Graphics rather lend themselves to overt political statements,” she reasoned.
The press release of the collection included a petition for the freeing of Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier (who had been imprisoned in a highly contested and controversial trail in ‘77), signed by Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and Giorgio Armani to name a few. The “Chaos Point” collection in ‘08 signalled Westwood’s shift of focus from social activism to ecological – the show’s title pointing to the extremis of climate disaster, and the look a mix of flora and fauna prints, pagan-esque makeup with Rites of Spring plaited hair, and childishly drawn doodles. From this point, she used her catwalks (and their show notes) as a vehicle to express and bring attention to issues such as rainforest deforestation, global warming, fracking, consumerism and capitalism; collection names such as “Do It Yourself”, “ +5 Degrees” ( 2009) , “Gaia The Only One” (2011), “Climate Revolution” (2013), “Save The Arctic” (2014) and “End Ecocide” (2015) where hardly subtle in their messaging.
Photo Credit Ki Price
Vivienne Westwood was, until the end, an expert in understanding the political and semiotic power of fashion and a vehement believer in the transformative process of using creative vision to positively change the world for the better.
“The world changes and we change. Every epoch sees a new world” she asserted.
Simultaneously, she was an aesthete, a romanticist, and an unabashed adorer of the pleasure of dressing up, saying “I see fashion as a proposal, a way for people to look more wonderful.”
Photo Credit Ki Price