Queen of punk, fashion maverick, British legend, outspoken activist, and my personal hero, Dame Vivienne Westwood, passed away on December 29, 2022. She was 81 years old.
Chances are that even if you haven’t heard of her, you’ve seen her designs before. Her eponymous brand has recently been all the rage. Its darling tartan clutches and kaleidoscopic cherubim prints have adorned the likes of FKA Twigs, Bella Hadid, and Dua Lipa.
As goes the fashion cycle, the attention of Gen-Z it girls have transformed the brand into a viral, inescapable sensation; with nearly every for-you page and explore feed flooded by unboxings of the brand’s iconic choker — three strands of chunky pearls with a singular, bejewelled Saturn orb in the centre. Vivienne Westwood is now embedded in the mainstream. But to reduce Westwood to ‘that trendy necklace designer’ or ‘NANA-core’ would be a great disservice, ignoring the rich history and subculture entanglements that underscore her legacy.
The Vivienne Westwood story begins in 1974. In the cozy hubs of West London, next to heirloom coffee shops and quaint bookstores, Westwood opened her first boutique: SEX. Explicit and uncouth, the fetish-dash-clothing shop was impossible to miss. Outside hung a tasteful four-foot-tall, neon-pink sign that screamed “SEX,” while its interior walls were covered in scribbles of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and delicately draped in chickenwire. Paddles and handcuffs lined the shelves and distressed t-shirts with anti-facist slogans populated the racks.
Its clientele was just as eclectic, ranging from street prostitutes to Chelsea’s closeted, kinky elite; but, above all, SEX was most frequented by London’s nascent punk scene. Originally from the United States, punk was a subculture movement that rejected the idealism of the 1960s, instead embracing Nietzsche, anti-establishmentism, DIY ethics, nonconformity, and anti-capitalism. Typically covered in angry polemics and shredded with razor blades, Westwood’s clothes eloquently articulated the abrasive punk spirit. Her work gave the ineffable zeitgeist a material look.
During the height of punk’s popularity, Westwood became the personal stylist for a budding, underground band called the Sex Pistols. Rowdy and iconoclastic, the Sex Pistols were the perfect fit for Westwood’s rebellious aesthetic. As they lit spoons, provoked mosh pits, and posed for tabloids, the band was guaranteed to be wearing one of Westwood’s loosely woven ‘unravelling’ mohair jumpers or snarky, dadaist prints. Thus, as the Sex Pistols rose to notoriety, eventually becoming one of U.K’s biggest sensations, so did Westwood’s work. It was a match made in anarchy heaven; Westwood’s ‘guerilla’ clothing completed the band’s destructive image, and their modeling brought her vision to life.
But by 1980, punk had lost its zeal. Mainstream ‘posers’ had commercialized the aesthetic, effectively uprooting everything the movement stood for. The Sex Pistols also fell apart, losing their messianic image when bassist Sid Vicious allegedly killed his girlfriend Nancy Spugen while high on heroin. The gig was up. Punk had come to a dark, anti-climatic end.
Westwood soon changed directions, abandoning her grassroots boutique for a new venture into the world of commercial, haute fashion. But even in these snobby echelons, Westwood found a way to imbue her rebellious, counter-culture ethos.
While her contemporaries obsessed over the cosmopolitan, Westwood was busy digging through the archives. Her collections borrowed silhouettes from the annals of history, featuring pirates, fairies, dandies, and, most notably, Regency and Victorian attire. But instead of mere pastiche, Westwood added a cheeky, subversive twist to traditional couture.
The results were absolutely iconic: the Spring-Summer 1990 collection Pagan V showcased Hellenistic underwear — nude velour leggings with strategically placed fig leaves to mimic a post-coital man. Autumn-Winter 1994–95’s On Liberty, an obvious nod to John Stuart Mill, featured Carla Bruni wearing a jaw dropping flapper-esque coat with a matching fur G-string. The following summer, Erotic Zones shocked audiences with its vibrator-tipped poulaines and overtly angular bustiers, intended as a parody of traditional modest wear.
History also made its way into Westwood’s style. Westwood had a fabulous affair with the Old Masters, especially Watteau and Boucher. Rococo paintings, decadent and sweet as can be, adorned her structured corsets, which her models wore ever so tightly, their cleavage shyly peeking out. It made for an unconventional eroticism that paired surprisingly well with scenes of pastoral purity.
There was a sublime silliness to Westwood’s oeuvre. Her designs prove that she never took fashion too seriously, but, despite the satirical wit, Westwood’s bricolage always remained technically excellent, provoking in theme, and thoughtful in design. It is precisely this ability to synthesize — tradition and nouveau, regal and kitsch, innocence and sex, skill and vision — that cemented Westwood as fashion’s OG maverick.
Perhaps the most punk thing about Westwood was her political consciousness. As she put it: “I just use fashion as an excuse to talk about politics. Because I’m a fashion designer, it gives me a voice, which is really good.”
Like her designs, Westwood was daring and outspoken. Among some of her many, many political commitments, her resume includes: collaborating with numerous organizations — including Amnesty International, War Child and Liberty, as well as her own movement, Climate Revolution — and donating to thousands more; championing issues such as nuclear disarmament, anti-terrorism laws, and increased public spending; writing Active Resistance to Propaganda, an Adorno-esque meditation on art’s relationship to capitalism; locking herself in a giant birdcage to show her support for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks; and, as recently as two years ago, publishing ardent letters about politics and activism in the New York Times. Up until her last breath, Westwood was fighting for the causes she cherished.
Westwood was my biggest fashion inspiration. Growing up in an immigrant household, I was always told to keep my head down. Don’t make a scene. Be like other people. Only then, by shrinking and conforming, could my yellow skin be tolerated.
In middle school, a cool older cousin gifted me a copy of FRUITS — a magazine that photographed Harajuku’s eclectic, colourful streetwear. What I saw absolutely delighted me: Asian women, who looked just like me, draped in Westwood’s studded belts and steampunk-esque crinolines. They looked loud, dramatic, and unapologetic, like a bold expletive to the pressures of society. I was floored. Since then, I’ve been an avid collector of the whimsical and rebellious fashion of Vivienne Westwood. Her example showed me that it was okay to stand out; being a misfit didn’t mean you were relegated to the fringe, but an enigmatic thinker who dared to leave the cave.
A spirit like hers comes once in a century. Rest in peace, Dame Vivienne Westwood.