Vivienne Westwood, ‘high priestess of punk’


It may or may not be a surprise to learn that although she is, at the time of her death, deeply synonymous with the British fashion industry as a whole, it was never Vivienne Westwood’s intention to become a ‘luxury’ label.

Her logo of the sovereign orb encircled by the rings of Saturn that now adorn Gen Z necks on Mini Bas Relief Pearl Chokers far and wide, represented her drive for taking tradition into the future. But anyone familiar with Vivienne Westwood’s early career will know that her regard for convention would, in those days, have barely surpassed her regard for dirt on the sole of her shoe. How would 1970s Vivienne have reacted to her future popularity among the very establishments she sought to confront? To what extent has her emblem, now associated with luxury, status and influence, obscured her Clapham-based punk-rock roots?

Despite being better known among her prolific Chinese clientele as ‘Xi Tai Hou’, that is, the ‘Empress Dowager of the West’, Westwood claimed much humbler origins. Born in a small village in Derbyshire to a mother and father who had worked in the mills and as a greengrocer respectively, her connections to the glamorous worlds of fashion weeks and Damehoods (the ceremony for which she famously went commando) were non-existent, and her success still a long way off.

Her regard for convention, in those days, would have barely surpassed her regard for dirt on the sole of her shoe

Suffering increasingly from working-class disillusionment regarding the scant economic prospects of the creative industry, Westwood dropped out of Harrow Art School (now the University of Westminster) in the late fifties to become a primary school teacher. Her next venture into the world of fashion came only in the early seventies, when she and her then-husband Malcolm McLaren opened a boutique store at 430 King’s Road in Chelsea.

Christened ‘Let it Rock’ by the couple, the boutique prophesised Vivienne Westwood’s eventual status as an embodiment of the cultural zeitgeist of 1970s Britain. What began with 1950s memorabilia morphed into mohair sweaters and teddy boy trousers, fetishism and finally punchy slogan t-shirts fashioned from boiled chicken bones. Such rawness and garishness signalled that the hippie era had well and truly run its course.

‘Let it Rock’ was only the first of four more reincarnations undergone by 430 King’s Road during the seventies, with the boutique being renamed ‘Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die’ in 1972, ‘SEX’ in 1974, ‘Seditionaries’ in 1976 and finally ‘World’s End’ in 1979. Every few years the boutique was stripped and reinvented, charting the subversive development of the 70s punk rock movement and establishing Westwood and McLaren as some of its most significant frontrunners.

‘God Save the Queen’ came to define an era for both the Sex Pistols- managed by McLaren- and Westwood, whose styling of the band and eponymous t-shirts developed icon status in tandem with the single’s chart success.

‘God Save the Queen’ came to define an era

If nothing else the seventies had warned that as a designer, Westwood was restless. True enough, with the arrival of the SS81 Pirates collection the 70s punk-rock trajectory was turned on its head. The 1980s saw the birth of the Mini-Crini and the tartan Harris Tweed suit, and with them Westwood’s gradual ascendancy to the fashion Hall of Fame; she was named British Fashion Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council in both 1990 and 1991.

The 1990s saw Westwood fully embrace the supermodel era, with numerous iconic moments including Naomi Campbell taking a tumble in a pair of purple nine-inch platform heels in 1993, and Kate Moss licking an ice-cream while strutting topless down the catwalk in 1995.

Despite looking increasingly to history and tradition for creative inspiration, Westwood’s acutely political, rebellious streak never waned. For her 1989 Tatler cover, she dressed as Margaret Thatcher in the very suit ordered by the PM herself, with a headline in ransom note letters which read ‘this woman was once a punk’- a move which got the then-editor sacked. “This cover for Tatler was blown up on billboards during London Fashion Week- even I had to look twice to believe it was me”, Westwood reflected in 2012.

An embodiment of the cultural zeitgeist of 1970s Britain

The 2000s seemed like something of a punk maverick renaissance for Vivienne Westwood Contempt for government and power dominated her attitude to fashion as she rediscovered its potential as an activist’s tool.

T-shirts bearing poignant anti-terror law slogans emerged for SS06, while banners were emblazoned with such statements as ‘fracking is a crime” and “austerity is a crime” for SS16, hearkening to Westwood’s intense passion for climate change activism. She even delivered a letter- with a box of asbestos- to the doorstep of David Cameron’s constituency home in Oxfordshire in a further attempt to protest fracking in 2015. If that wasn’t radical enough for you, she also made the journey through the Oxford suburbs in a 60-tonne military tank. In her own words: “financial crisis is a symptom and the herald of climate change- coming soon, apocalypse in 2020. When are we going to listen to the scientists?”

Although quintessentially British, Vivienne Westwood’s appeal was international, intergenerational. It wouldn’t be a stretch to deem her a feminist icon either. Chrissie Hynde, frontwoman of The Pretenders but better known to Westwood as a ‘SEX’ shop assistant, spoke the words the entire fashion world was thinking: “Vivienne is gone and the world is already a less interesting place.”

‘Motifs of Rebellion’

A dress and sash from the AW 1981 ‘Pirates’ collection. The collection marked a shift in Westwood’s inspiration. Historical style and British fabrics became her trademark.
The Mini-Crini at Vienna Fashion Night 2014. The ‘Mini-Crini’ first debuted in 1985, and was a risqué homage to 19th century crinoline skirts (structured petticoat undergarments designed to hold the shape of ladies’ skirts) merged with the modern mini-skirt.
Harris Tweed Suit, AW 1988 ‘Time Machine’ collection. The collection was inspired by the eponymous H.G. Wells novel, and emulated medieval armour with detachable elements while giving off a distinctly militaristic look.
FW93 ‘Anglomaina’ collection. The pair of nine-inch platform heels that famously got the better of Naomi Campbell on the Parisian runway.
Pharrell Williams wearing the iconic ‘Mountain’ hat from Westwood and McLaren’s AW82 ‘Buffalo Girls’ collection at Coachella 2014.

Illustrations: Anna Kuptsova

Image credit (from top): Staff Photographer Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons, Christian Leitner via Flickr, Sargoth via Wikimedia Commons, Daniel Milner via Wikimedia Commons, Thomas Hawk via Flickr

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