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Vivienne Westwood:

The Queen of Punk

From pioneering the punk scene in London to her historical transformations, journalist Odunayo Ojo, aka Fashion Roadman, takes a look the late fashion legend’s legacy

WORDS: Odunayo Ojo Photographer: JANE DOE

Vivienne Westwood’s punk designs have been at the centre of the British fashion since the 70s. It’s difficult to imagine a world where London’s fashion scene wasn’t open to all. Diversity across topics such as race, body type, gender identity and disabilities are major talking points in the industry and are slowly being highlighted in today’s glossy magazines and campaigns. The social media age has allowed determined individuals with a strong point of view and resumé to build platforms that sidestep the need for approval from mainstream fashion gatekeepers.

However, in the 20th Century, the highest tiers of fashion were reserved for the super-rich and ultra-skinny, building its allure around the exclusivity it created. For this reason, Vivienne Westwood spent only one term studying silver-smithing at the Harrow School of Art before leaving, famously stating: "I didn't know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world." Instead, she opted to work in a factory before becoming a primary teacher; a job she felt was more pragmatic. During this time, her fire for creativity was still alive. She had a stall on Portobello Road where she sold some of her handmade jewellery designs, and she would frequently make clothing designs for herself dating back to her teenage years.

In 1961, Vivienne Isabel Swire met a man named Derek Westwood, who she eventually married and had a son with. This was how she got the iconic surname synonymous with her brand. During this time, she felt that she suppressed her creativity, doubting she could make it in fashion. This resentment played a part in her getting a divorce shortly after meeting Malcolm McLaren through her brother in 1965. Her time with McLaren, especially in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, was pivotal to her eventually becoming a household name in fashion. Throughout this time, they co-owned a boutique in London on 430 King’s Road that went through many iterations and rebrands. Together, they shaped the punk aesthetic through designs of t-shirts with bold red Nazi Swastikas, bondage trousers and jackets, jumpers pierced with safety pins, cotton vests with zips that expose the nipples and more.

Westwood’s provocative designs reflected the political unrest at the time. Her work was anti-establishment at its core, to the horror of the general British public who complained about a bunch of misfits who paraded around London. "I was so upset with what was going on in the world," she said. "I just couldn't stand the idea of people being tortured and that we even had such a thing as war. I hated the older generation, who had not done anything about it. Punk was a call-to-arms for me."

In Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, which is referred to as a bible of punk rock’s history, he wrote: “In the late ‘70s, the start of family break-up, hard drug usage and a new harsh political environment led to social unrest amongst young Brits who desecrated monuments that represented figures of government and authority.” Hence why Westwood designed a “God Save The Queen” t-shirt depicting Queen Elizabeth II with a safety pin through her nose.

Her design of distressed t-shirts with bold red Nazi swastikas, inverted images of Christ on the cross, the word “DESTROY” and Sex Pistols lyrics was a reference to dictators around the world who had committed atrocities and major crimes against humanity. It was meant as a middle finger to what they represent and a declaration against the symbols that characterised them.

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Her designs became prominent due to the rise in popularity of the Sex Pistols, a ‘70s punk rock group managed by Malcolm McLaren and consisting of customers and workers of the SEX store on 430 King’s Road. They acted as muses for the boutique, wearing the clothes to gigs where they would regularly do controversial things that landed them in the tabloids.

The Sex Pistols would later separate, and Westwood turned her focus to building her name as a designer. She presented her first show at London Fashion Week for the AW81 season with a collection titled “Pirates.” This collection would become known as one of her most iconic showings. She presented clothing in a way that had not been seen for a long time in London, modernising historic pirate uniforms and adopting a new romantic sensibility.

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Designs from this collection became signatures of Vivienne Westwood, including pirate boots and a squiggly line print. This collection also marked a stark shift from her work's dark and angry aesthetic that defined the punk era to a more cheerful mood and use of lighter tones, even though the spirit of activism always remained in her designs. A few years later, Westwood separated from McLaren after he called her “just a seamstress” that would not have amounted to anything without him. The general consensus is that he grew jealous of her success and started to envy her.

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Across Westwood’s collections, she would continue to modernise historical garments. She printed 18th-century paintings by François Boucher onto corsets that took inspiration from the same period, redesigning them by making them more elastic and comfortable. By doing this, she completely recontextualised the function of the corset as an outerwear piece that could be worn over other garments. Historically, the role of corsets was to nip in the waist and lift the bust. They were typically worn as undergarments. Till now, corsetry remains one of the Vivienne Westwood brand signatures.

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Her shows didn’t just present clothes that made you dream; they were also fun spectacles that became the talk of the town. This reputation created some of the most iconic ‘90s fashion moments, including Kate Moss eating ice cream topless during the SS94 show and Naomi Campbell infamously stumbling across the runway due to a misstep wearing a pair of Westwood's Super Elevated Gillie Towering Heels during the AW93 show.

Throughout her career, Vivienne Westwood tore straight through the elitism and snobbery of fashion. She pioneered style movements that continue to influence contemporary fashion designers, ensuring that her legacy will never be forgotten.




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