Born: Vivienne Isabel Swire in Glossop, Derbyshire, 8 April 1941. Education: Studied one term at Harrow Art School, then trained as a teacher. Family: Children: Ben, Joseph. Career: Taught school before working as designer, from circa 1971; with partner Malcolm McLaren, proprietor of boutique variously named Let It Rock, 1971, Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, 1972, Sex, 1974, Seditionaries, 1977, and World's End, from 1980; second shop, Nostalgia of Mud, opened, 1982; Mayfair shop opened, 1990; first showed under own name, 1982; taught at Academy of Applied Arts, Vienna, 1989-91; first full menswear collection launched, 1990; opened Tokyo shop, 1996; introduced denim line, Anglomania, 1997; fragrances include Boudoir, 1998; and Boudoir, 2000. Exhibitions: Retrospective, Galerie Buchholz & Schipper, Cologne, 1991; retrospective, Bordeaux, 1992; Vivienne Westwood: The Collection of Romilly McAlpine, Museum of London, 2000. Awards: British Designer of the Year award, 1990, 1991; Order of the British Empire (OBE), 1992; Fashion
Vivienne Westwood: A London Fashion, with Romilly McAlpine, London, 2000.
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Vivienne Westwood's clothes have been described as perverse, irrelevant, and unwearable. Her creations have also been described as brilliant, subversive, and incredibly influential. She is unquestionably among the most important fashion designers of the late 20th century and beyond
Westwood will go down in history as the fashion designer most closely associated with punks, the youth subculture that developed in England in the 1970s. Although her influence extends far beyond the era, Westwood's relationship with the punk subculture is critically important to an understanding of her style. Just as the mods and hippies had developed their own styles of dress and music, so did the punks. Yet while the hippies extolled love and peace, the punks emphasized sex and violence. Punk was about nihilism, blankness and chaos, and sexual deviancy, especially sadomasochism and fetishism. The classic punk style featured safety pins piercing cheeks or lips, spiky hairstyles, and deliberately revolting clothes, which often appropriated the illicit paraphernalia of pornography.
Westwood captured the essence of confrontational antifashion long before other designers recognized the subversive power of punk style. In the 1970s Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren had a shop in London successively named Let It Rock (1971), Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die (1972), Sex (1974), and Seditionaries (1977). In the beginning the emphasis was on a 1950s-revival look derived from the delinquent styles of 1950s youth culture. In 1972 the shop was renamed after the slogan on a biker's leather jacket, heralding the new brutalism that would soon spread throughout both street fashion and high fashion. Black leather evoked not only antisocial bikers like the Hell's Angels, but also sadomasochistic sex, which was then widely regarded as "the last taboo."
Westwood's Bondage collection of 1976 was particularly important. Working primarily in black, especially black leather and rubber, she designed clothes that were studded, buckled, strapped, chained, and zippered. Westwood talked to people who were into sadomasochistic sex and researched the "equipment" they used. "I had to ask myself, why this extreme form of dress? Not that I strapped myself up and had sex like that. But on the other hand I also didn't want to liberally understand why people did it. I wanted to get hold of those extreme articles of clothing and feel what it was like to wear them." Taken from the hidden sexual subculture that spawned it and flaunted it on the street, bondage fashion began to take on a new range of meanings. "The bondage clothes were ostensibly restricting," she said, "but when you put them on they gave you a feeling of freedom."
Sex was "one of the all-time greatest shops in history," recalled pop star Adam Ant. The shop sign was in padded pink letters and the window was covered, except for a small opening, through which one could peep and see items like pornographic t-shirts. Westwood, in fact, was prosecuted and convicted for selling a t-shirt depicting two cowboys with exposed penises. Other shirts referred to child molesting and rape, or bore aggressive slogans like "Destroy" superimposed over a swastika and an image of the Queen.
Sex was implicitly political for Westwood; when she renamed the shop Seditionaries, it was to show "the necessity to seduce people into revolt." She insisted sex was fashion, and deliberately torn clothing was inspired by old movie stills. She also launched the fashion for underwear as outerwear, showing bras worn over dresses. From the beginning she exploited the erotic potential of extreme shoe fashions, from leopard-print stiletto-heeled pumps to towering platform shoes and boots with multiple straps and buckles.
"When we finished punk rock we started looking at other cultures," recalled Westwood. "Up till then we'd only been concerned with emotionally charged rebellious English youth movements…. We looked at all the cults that we felt had this power." The result was the Pirates Collection of 1981, which heralded the beginning of the New Romantics Movement. The Pirates Collection utilized historical revivalism, 18th-century shirts and hats, rather than fetishism, but like the sexual deviant, the pirate also evoked the mystique of the romantic rebel as outcast and criminal. Meanwhile, in 1980 the shop was renamed World's End, and in 1981 Westwood began to show her collections in Paris, finally recognized internationally as a major designer.
Like pirates and highwaymen, Westwood and McLaren wanted "to plunder the world of its ideas." The Savages Collection (1982) showed Westwood gravitating toward a tribal look—the name was deliberately offensive and shocking—and the clothes oversized, in rough fabrics, and with exposed seams. Subsequent collections, like Buffalo, Hoboes, Witches, and Punkature, continued Westwood's postmodern collage of disparate objects and images.
In 1985 Westwood launched her "mini-crini," a short hooped skirt inspired by the Victorian crinoline, and styled with a tailored jacket and platform shoes. "I take something from the past which has a sort of vitality that has never been exploited—like the crinoline," she said. Westwood insisted that "there was never a fashion invented that was more sexy, especially in the big Victorian form." She also revived the corset, another much maligned item of Victoriana—and an icon of fetish fashion. Certainly her corsets and crinolines forced people to reexplore the meaning of controversial fashions. As she moved into the late 1980s and 1990s, Westwood continued to transgress boundaries, not least by rejecting her earlier faith in antiestablishment style in favor of a subversive take on power dressing. Like "Miss Marple on acid," Westwood appropriated twinsets and tweeds, and even the traditional symbols of royal authority.
As the century drew to a close, Westwood still delighted in taking the fashion world to task. While her contemporaries and a crop of new designers were concentrating on airy, fluid, feminine ensembles, Westwood took the opposite tack with revealingly tight, clinging dresses with bawdy drawings. She expanded her reach with her first store outside the UK, in Tokyo in 1996, then launched a new denim collection, Anglomania, in 1997. Her own fragrances followed, with Boudoir in 1998 and Libertine in 2000. By the time Westwood opened a flagship store in New York, appropriately located in SoHo, she already had 20 in Asia, five in England, and another slated for Los Angeles.
Though the business part of her growing empire isn't nearly as fun as designing, the Vivienne Westwood name had been attracting new generations, even cyber shoppers. Westwood accessories and her fragrances sell at various Internet sites, and the irreverent fashion queen even launched her own website. Talking with Women's Wear Daily (27 November 2000), she mused on her recognition. "Most people have never seen my clothes," she said, "but they've heard of me." Indeed.
updated by Sydonie Benét