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Vivienne Westwood: A Career of Punk, Performance and Pioneering

Words by Ella Sangster


Half a decade since her career began, it is clear Dame Vivienne Westwood's brand is a fashion house for rebellion. Her practice found its roots in the punk scene in London in the early 1970s, and with the opening of her first store SEX in London in conjunction with then-partner Malcom McLaren, Westwood established herself as an early pioneer of post-modernist fashion.

Over the last fifty years, divided into five concurrent ‘eras’, Westwood has utilised her collections as a lens through which to critique socio-political climates of the present and explore cultural values of the past. She has not only produced some of the most iconic collections to grace the British fashion space, but acted as a driving force of political activism and social change within the fashion industry and beyond.

Ragamuffins

After the momentous success of SEX, Westwood and McLarens first runway show was highly anticipated. The launch of the Pirates show for AW81/82 set the tone for the coming era as a new-romantic wonderland. Pirates, as well as the following seasons Pukature (SS83) and Witches (AW83/84), were fantastical yet distinctly dystopian, blending historical motifs with subverted social commentary regarding the nature of the punk scene and the fashion world’s approach to alternative style at the time.

The raggamuffin style, jagged cuts, and caricature-like hair and makeup saw a theme emerge throughout this era that was gritty and cartoonish with an oddish elegance about it. The confusion and intrigue that arose from these collections ultimately gave Westwood the space to elevate punk culture to high-fashion status, and forge a path for other designers to deviate from what was deemed normal or acceptable.

Tatler Girls


When the models hit the runway for the AW87 collection Harris Tweed, it was clear a new era of Vivienne Westwood was upon us. The punkish looks and experimental cuts were out, Tatler girls and femininity was in. In the collections that followed Harris Tweed Westwood parodied the upper class with childlike motifs represented in conjunction with impeccable tailoring. Inspired by the royal family and steeped with symbolism distinct to the British upper classes, the Pagan I (SS88), Time Machine (AW88/89), Portrait (AW90/91), and Dressing Up (AW92/23) collections became symbolic of British culture In the late 80s and early 90s.

Westwood utilised the collections of the Tatler era to mock the classism that permeated British society and critique the neoliberal agenda of Thatcherite politics. In a now-infamous photoshoot, Vivienne Westwood posed on the cover of Tatler Magazine dressed as then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. Thatcher and her policies were the antithesis of everything Westwood advocated for through her practice, and the shoot went on to become one of the most iconic British magazine covers of all time.


Anglomania

In the transition out of the Tatler Era, Westwood maintained her use of British iconography, slowly transforming her collections into a means to explore the exchange of ideas between France and the UK, moving into an era that would later be dubbed ‘Anglomania.’ In the collections Grand Hotel (SS93), Anglomania (AW93/94), Cafe Society (SS94), and Vive La Cocotte (AW95/96) Westwood appropriated ideas from the past and adapted them to fit a twentieth century audience, culminating in fusion of French and British style that felt both medieval and modern.

The collections oozed a certain country charm that would have been at home in a French chateau, blended with her signature Brit-punk maximalism. The heels were high, the trains were long, and the silhouettes were padded and extreme. This era was a functional oxymoron in every way; both an embrace and rebuttal of anti-fashion movements of the time, and an ode to the collaboration and competition of British and French fashion houses throughout history.

The Anglomania years saw the solidification of Westwood’s icon status and the creation of some of the most enigmatic looks and runway shows in the house’s five-decade history. It was during this era in 1992 she was appointed an Order of the British Empire, (and later elevated to Damehood in 2006) signifying her contribution to arts and culture in the UK.

Unisex

The turn of the century was the beginning of a new era for Vivienne Westwood. In her first collections of the 2000s, the hourglass silhouettes were abandoned in favour of straight, androgynous cuts through which Westwood explored concepts of sexuality and gender identity. The Gold Label (SS00/2000), Exploration (SS01), Nymphs (SS02), and Street Theatre (SS03) collections pushed the boundaries of gender binaries and high fashion as a whole.

These years also saw the return of punk-inspired looks, but in a more subdued way than the ‘Ragamuffin’ days. More focus was placed on dynamic cuts and direct socio-political messaging as opposed to the grandeur and satirical themes that characterised the Anglomania years. During these years Westwood was increasingly vocal in her political activism and social justice, which would become the foundation of her icon status amongst youth groups leading into the 2010s and to today.

The New Age

The rebellious nature of the Westwood brand, coupled with Vivienne’s ongoing activist efforts, has positioned her in alignment with the values that underpin today's mainstream youth culture.

Her personal notoriety has bolstered her brand further, with several notable items from both vintage and new collections enjoying major virality on social media. Two of the most salient examples of such are the boucher corset from AW90/91, which shot to internet fame after being seen on Bella Hadid, and the Pearl Bass Relief choker.


The commercial success of the brand today, not only in high fashion but also mainstream circles, allows for Westwood’s continued commentary and activism through her collections, on a larger scale than ever before.

After five incredulous decades in the industry, the impact Dame Vivienne Westwood has had on fashion, society, and culture is immeasurable. Her boundary-pushing and innovation set the stage for up and coming designers to follow in her footsteps and forge their own path of change. The meaning stitched into the very fabric of her designs, as well as her electric personality, continue to shock, delight, and inspire audiences across the world and maintain the standards for conscious and conscientious fashion.

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