Dame Vivienne Westwood is one of a kind. There will never be another like her. From her initial stark rebellion against 60s Flower Power alongside her Mod lover – Malcolm McLaren – to her 80s Tweed uber-parody of the English elite, she has never been afraid to fly in the face of contemporary zeitgeist.
In the beginning…
From the get-go Westwood was far more than a fashion designer. By nature, her pumped-up, in-your-face creativity permeates every corner of her existence, which was illustrated in the first instance by the clothes she designed and made herself for McLaren’s King’s Road fashion store – ‘SEX’. The by-now vintage 50s styling doubled down to not only bring Westwood to the public’s attention, but also to thrust McLaren’s band – The Sex Pistols – to the forefront of the music establishment. She was inspired by fashion’s unique, demanding and interrogatory ability to ‘put a spoke in the system’.
It wasn’t always such a strident and direct road to success for the former Glossop Grammar School girl, however. Her life before this time was one of a working-class primary school teacher who had left art college (Harrow School of Art) due to lacking confidence in being able to make it in the competitive, elitist and high-brow world of the arts. She married and tried to settle down with first husband, Derek Westwood, in the early 60s, but was instantaneously drawn back to her innate creative calling when she met McLaren a short time later. Her first marriage ended and she and McLaren moved into a council flat together.
Once Westwood and McLaren had established their fashion line and punk band respectively, their shock-factor appeal spread like wildfire. One of the original power couples, the pair relished the challenge set before them – of questioning societal protocols and acceptance of the norm via the arts. It proved an effective, popular protest, with punk becoming a mainstream and sought-after philosophy, let alone fashion genre. Westwood commented:-
‘I was messianic about punk…’.
Producing fashion lines – with both Westwood and McLaren credited equally – entitled ‘Pirate’, ‘Savages’, ‘Punkature’ and ‘Witches’ to name a few – further underlined her idiosyncratic modus operandi which has underpinned her whole fashion career – using fashion as a vehicle to illustrate her own philosophical statement. The couple became credited with being the architects of the punk movement and its longevity, through the 1980s.
The decline of Westwood and McLaren’s vibrant relationship occurred in the mid-80s, with their split taking place before the final Worlds End label fashion line entitled ‘Clint Eastwood’ (late 1984).
Whether the split itself caused Westwood’s abrupt, creative about-face, or whether she herself desired a new, inspired direction, from the late 1980s onwards, Vivienne appeared to become enamoured of all things elitist. Dubbed ‘The Pagan Years’, 1988 to 1992 saw Westwood thrust front and centre into the Brit-Pop spotlight, with her Harris Tweed and tartan send up of the UK’s upper classes. Inspired by a chance encounter on a train, the designer revealed:-
‘My whole idea for this collection was stolen from a little girl I saw on the tube one day. She couldn’t have been more than 14. She had a little plaited bun, a Harris Tweed jacket and a bag with a pair of ballet shoes in it. She looked so cool and composed standing there.’.
Via her own creative muses, such as Sarah Stockbridge and Naomi Campbell, Westwood produced stunning catwalk collections showcasing her own holistic and comprehensive grasp of both vintage fashion and British royal history. Her label and persona were elevated to global industry prominence, with Vivienne herself accruing her own kind of royalty.
Closing the door on her overt exploration of historicism, Westwood then chose to focus on one of the themes emanating from her Pagan Years collections. She wanted to treat textiles as a form of inspiration in their own right, as ‘a living mass’. With a scholarly approach befitting a PhD research student, Westwood tackled the expansive notion of fabric in and of itself. Paring back fashion ideologies to the original dress-making techniques and structural form, Westwood’s Exploration years culminated in the designer’s La Flou Taille (Unstructed Tailoring) collection. She commented:-
‘It is the ultimate mark of quality and craftsmanship to combine fluidity and tailoring into one entity… The clothes look very spontaneous but they are incredibly well-constructed underneath.’.
And well-constructed they certainly were…
In more recent years, Westwood has downplayed her contribution to the fashion industry, seeking to become more environmentally aware. In 2013, she purportedly announced a halt to business expansion due to a desire to adhere further to sustainability ethics.
During her career, Vivienne Westwood has been decorated with many forms of recognition for her services to fashion, business and the environment. Just some of them have been:-
- British Fashion Designer of the Year – 1990, 1991, 2006
- Royal Honours – 1992 (OBE), 2006 (DBE)
- Honorary Doctorate – 2008 (Heriot-Watt University)
- Business Ambassador – 2014 (Trillion Fund – clean energy)
In the 21st Century, Westwood’s standing as not only a fashion designer, but also philosophical architect and activitist, has been cemented through various celebrations of her extensive contribution to the modern historical record.
She was included in Sir Peter Blake’s reimagining of The Beatles’ Sargeant Pepper album cover which featured British cultural icons who he had admired throughout his own lifetime. Furthermore, this year she has been celebrated in a documentary film on her life, entitled ‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’, which we think says it all…
[Credits: Feature image – Vivienne Westwood (myzerowaste.com); blog.viviennewestwood.com; theredlist.com; brennan-and-burch.co.uk; advantageinvintage.co.uk; vogue.co.uk; The Independent; Evans, Caroline; Thornton, Minna (1989). Women and Fashion: A New Look. London, UK: Quartet Books. pp. 148–50. ISBN 9780704326910; zimbio.com; Mulvagh, Jane (2011). An Unfashionable Life. HarperCollins; New Ed edition. ISBN 9780007177066.]