Punk & glamour
3 October - 9 May 2021
Vivienne Westwood’s illustrious fashion career first began with her business and romantic partnership with Malcolm McLaren in the 1970s. McLaren was heavily influenced by the situationist movement, a group of avant-garde political revolutionaries that rejected capitalist authority and saw as its mission to subvert and challenge the bourgeois status quo through interventions. Together Westwood and McLaren created clothing inspired by this movement, which they sold from premises at 430 Kings Road, London. Their aesthetic shocked a conservative 1970s England featuring bondage suits made from military tartan, tops made from cheesecloth or muslin adorned with pins and bearing slogans like "Destroy" superimposed over a swastika, and t-shits featuring provocative images such as a pair of homosexual cowboys naked from the waist down. Worn perhaps most famously by the band the Sex Pistols, the style known as “punk” resonated with the disenfranchised youth of London and issued a creative rebuke to establishment mores.
Following the breakup of the Sex Pistols and the evolution of Punk into a more mainstream movement and realizing “we need ideas not kicking down a door” (Morrison, 2012), Westwood and McLaren moved on. The shop on King’s Road went through a number of name changes - ‘Sex’, ‘Seditionaries’, ‘World’s End’ - each reinvention opening up yet another imagined world. As Caroline Evans (2007) puts it, Westwood led “bold and swashbuckling raids on the past, treating history and culture as a dressing-up box from which to recreate the self as a flamboyant and spectacular creature’. They made clothes based on the costume of native Appalachians, swashbuckling pirates and a shocking inversion of underwear as outerwear. Their collections were exuberant, joyous and morphed into yet another musical movement centred on the Kings Road shop – New Romanticism characterised by Darcy shirts, sack and buckle boots and caped drama. While visiting Malcolm in New York, where he had begun spending more time absorbed in music, Vivienne also met the pop artist Keith Haring, discovering a mutual admiration for each other’s work. She later used some of his graffiti inspired designs in her collection including the Robot and Barking Diablo Dogs.
When her partnership with Malcolm ended Vivienne turned to tradition, craft and from the mid 1980’s she rooted her work in tailoring and the self-taught Westwood apprenticed herself to the skills necessary to cut, sew and fold cloth. Rather than something to rail against Westwood found a creative wellspring in tradition, with his clothes increasingly taking reference from the pattern books of British history and culture using traditional fabrics such as Lochcarron tartan and Harris Tweed. The Westwood logo – “The Orb and Ring” used since 1985 is quintessentially British; part of the royal regalia held by the Queen at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament. Together with the ‘Saturn’ ring this logo represents the taking of tradition into the future. Yet although the clothing evokes tradition, they never lose the playful edginess characteristic of her designs, the clothing remains distinct with slightly twisted hems and button lines, or odd junctures of texture, material and pattern.
Westwood has come a long way from maverick designer, to gradually becoming part of the establishment and in 1992 she received an Order of the British Empire and in 2006 the title of Dame Commander for her outstanding contribution to British fashion. She is the figurehead of her eponymous firm; her clothes and products are sold in more than 50 countries and over 700 points of sale worldwide across all five continents. Over the years both her and her clothing have become increasingly more politicised. She has used her exalted position to provide vocal support for the Occupy movement, the work of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and the informant Chelsea Manning. She has been involved in amnesty cases such as that of Leonard Peltier a Native American thought to be have been wrongly convicted in the USA. Westwood campaigns against climate change, protests to end fracking and advocates for the preserving the Arctic from mineral speculation. For instance, in her Spring/ Summer 2010 collection entitled Planet Gaia (referring to the idea of the planet as a self-regulating system), the models were adorned with environmental slogans such as “Act fast, slow down, stop climate change”. Westwood remains a figurehead and creative force in fashion whilst in parallel well into her 7th decade she remains a passionate and committed activist. This show illustrates her five decades in fashion from her origins in punk and her evolution into the glamour of haute couture.