From t-shirts slashed, scrawled and emblazoned with provocative statements to the most delicate ball gowns, Vivienne Westwood’s journey as a designer may be described as a zig-zagging road full of twists and turns, exciting and unpredictable. Yet delving deeper into her creative approach reveals that she may have been treading a singular path all along, heading towards one clear goal: to change the world, or maybe even to save it.
Vivienne Westwood (née Swire) was born on 8 April 1941 in the village of Tintwistle, Derbyshire. At 16 she moved with her family to London, where she studied fashion and silversmithing for a single term before leaving to become a primary school teacher. It was when she met Malcolm McLaren that she took a more active role in fashion. Encouraging her obvious talent for tailoring and shared passion for revolutionary change, the young radical persuaded her to make Teddy Boy outfits, which they sold from a market stall on Portobello Road. But rather than churning out reproductions, she added her own signature by introducing small cuts and customisations to the garments. These early experiments were so popular that it lead to the couple opening a boutique on Kings Road. Originally known as “Let It Rock”, it went through several rebirths, with names ranging from “Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die”, “SEX”, “Seditionaries” to, finally, “World’s End”.
The shop served as Westwood’s laboratory, where she was free to take ideas off the street and reinterpret them as looks. She scrutinised the appearance and behaviour of the various subcultures in London and New York; whether they were bikers, zoot-suiters, rockabillies, perverts, fetishists, social misfits or bag ladies. These visual codes were deconstructed and mixed in with recycled fabrics to create a new language of resistance. It was here that Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols found their stage personas and forged the famous visual identity that contributed to their success.
As much as she embodied the punk attitude of that era, she also knew when the time came to move on. It was at this point that she realised the importance of the past in shaping the future. Rather than adhering to the destructive nature of punk to criticise the present, she came to think that to truly question the world we live in, we must look to the past. In her own words:
“The only future I can conceive of is the one deriving from an ability to reinterpret the past.”
Scornful of consumerism, propaganda and the non-stop distractions of modern life, she found refuge and creative relief in art galleries, particularly the Wallace Collection in London, with its sumptuous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and interiors. She also discovered a fascination for the British monarchy and upper classes, coming to appreciate their airs and graces as a new form of societal resistance. At a time when her peers were obsessed with reviving the fifties and sixties, she delved deeper into the history books and unearthed ancient fashions that hadn’t been seen for hundreds of years.
It was this dogged determination and refusal to conform that led to such smash hits as the Mini-Crini, a reimagined piece of Victorian apparatus for the modern woman. Originally designed to widen a woman’s skirts, the crinoline became a symbol of female liberation in Westwood’s hands. Shortened to above the knee and exposed in full, its cheekily sexual nature and bold silhouette was an early example of Westwood’s interest in deliberately cutting clothes in ways that seemingly altered the human figure. Padded bottoms, asymmetrical tops and L-shaped sleeves demonstrate a shift away from “things that fitted” to statement pieces that refuse to blend in. If the garment is her stage, the catwalk shows are her theatres; for the launch of the On Liberty collection in 1994, she had Naomi Campbell wear a flashing emergency light on her head, Carla Bruni in fur underwear and Kate Moss dressed in nothing more than a bouquet of flowers. Westwood may start by referencing the nobility, but then abandons historical correctness in favour of a liberating laugh.
For Vivienne Westwood, clothes have always been a vehicle for a much greater cause. Four decades on, she is unwavering in her toughness, talent, audacity, and healthy dose of humour. She has received several awards, with her 1992 OBE and 2006 damehood the shiniest jewels in her crown. Today, Westwood is recognised as a hugely successful global fashion powerhouse, climate change campaigner, and endless source of inspiration for all generations.