Words: Emily Turnbull (She/Her)
Vivienne Westwood is the British queen of fashion. With her work’s chaotic intimacy and punk and activism at the forefront, her brand became revolutionary. Born in 1941, Dame Vivi extended the influence of the punk music movement into 70s fashion, creating pieces for the Sex Pistols and satisfying the countercultures which yearned for anti-capitalist anarchy. Her unique brand later became a deconstruction of historicism and raw sexuality.
Vivienne Westwood’s love of punk began following her marriage to her second husband, Malcolm McLaren, keeping the name Westwood for obvious reasons (its badassery). Selling first to prostitutes and underground entertainment workers, Malcolm and Vivienne’s store ‘SEX’ sold a mix of bondage and fetish items. Its walls were adorned with chicken wire and writings from the SCUM manifesto. It became an early meeting place for London’s punk activists. Pandering to Britain’s ‘teddy boy subculture,’ SEX sold clothes appealing to 60s youth anarchist sensibilities and a spirit of rebelliousness. Alongside safety pins and bondage gear, political messages were sewn into her work: her infamous ‘God Save the Queen’ T-shirts shocked many and challenged the status quo. Westwood was not afraid to move against the grain, with many of her pieces described as outright outlandish. Despite only being together for a few years, Vivienne’s work for the Sex Pistols made an undeniable impact on the culture. Yet the commodification of protest and activism became increasingly prevalent as it moved into the mainstream, and Vivienne became jaded, disinterested in the style she helped birth. Following the death of Sex Pistols’s Sid Vicious, punk finally lost its allure.
Pirates was the title of Malcolm and Vivi’s first runway show in October 1981 and marked their genesis in the high fashion world. Inspired by medieval portrait paintings, Pirates featured loose-fitting silhouettes and bright colours, with aesthetics ranging from alien to punk’s dark palette and broken safety pins. Critics noted Pirate’s uniqueness, with low-slung trousers and avant-garde hats giving a gentle nod to Westwood’s background in costume design. This marked her turn away from punk into the New Romantic, veering away from edgy aestheticism into high-brow themes of British royalty and the French Revolution. In post-punk Britain, Westwood’s softer New Romanticism was a ‘reaction to the high tech and hard geometric lines of punk,’ noting the shift away from punk’s discourse of antifashion. In true Westwood style, Pirates appreciated the art of noble dress yet still critiqued the excess consumption and glorified aesthetics of the rich.
After her split from McLaren, Westwood went on to create further collections, all with underlying political messages. In the 1980s, Westwood subverted corsetry’s original restrictive purpose, reclaiming them from a garment of female oppression to liberation. Viv reimagined the corset in her 1987 Harris Tweed collection, naming her corset the ‘Stature of Liberty.’ Inspired by a girl Westwood saw on the train, looking very chic in a tweed jacket and ballet flats, her Harris Tweed collection brought a sense of elegance to the runway: a cloth only woven in the Outer Scottish Hebrides, the epitome of high fashion. So pleased with her representation of the Scottish cloth, Harris Tweed gifted Westwood their logo, which is still used today; the iconic orb paired with the rings of Saturn.
Having Kate Moss strutting the runway as Marie Antoinette in October 1993, ice cream in hand, is still today a pivotal fashion moment. Naomi Campbell’s iconic tumble in 12-inch heels, only to later receive calls from designers asking her to fall in their shows, provided the perfect display of 90s models bringing character to the runway. Her summer 2016 show turned into an ‘oh so punk’ protest march with models walking the catwalk, adorned with fracking and austerity slander. Another in winter 2017, named ‘Ecotricity’, called on other luxury designers to switch from fossil fuels to sustainable energy.
Yet, with Westwood’s stature in British fashion, it is important to note the somewhat superficial nature of her activism as her brand grew. JG Ballard suggested, ‘The interesting thing is that they are protesting against themselves. There’s no enemy out there. They know they are the enemy.’ This created a juxtaposition as the people she advocated for had no means of purchasing her creations. Whilst she raised the need to buy high-quality items of clothing over fast fashion, in an industry governed by excess, her words may fall short. High fashion is notoriously inaccessible. I wonder if her activism plays more into the myth-making of the Westwood brand than real changes, neglecting to speak about labour laws and the payment of her workers. After all, ‘how can you be a dame yet an anti-monarchist?’
Despite the conflicting nature of high fashion and protest, I still love Vivienne Westwood and am in awe of the work she performed to build a brand of such stature. Notoriously donating to the Green Party and advocating for the climate revolution, telling The Guardian in 2014, ‘Climate change, not fashion, is now my priority’. Consistently discouraging consumerism and bringing punk’s evolutionary ideologies into high fashion, and synthesising social and political pressures into her creations, Westwood changed vogue forever. She will always be fashion’s foremost thinker, over the last 20 years channelling her passion for art and culture into her designs, bringing awareness to issues too often sidelined in today’s political climate. There is nothing more punk than her approach to fashion and politics.
Vivi, you will always have my heart. Rest in peace to an icon.