Vivienne Westwood

“It’s difficult to keep being avant-garde these days. People have got used to everything,” says Vivienne Westwood, the grande dame of English fashion and mother of punk. It is to some extent her own work that made this happen, as almost everything fashionably avant-garde that emerged from England in the last thirty-five years ultimately goes back to her work. Her fashion is a plea for individualism and attitude. Her provocative declarations are often a protest against conformity and mediocrity. Her impressive life’s work exploits the clichés of female sexuality but never forgets tradition and history. In a way Vivienne Westwood is a deeply conservative rebel.

Born 8 April 1941 in Glossop, Derbyshire, she started out as a student of fashion and silver-smithing, but gave it up after only one term in order to train as a teacher. Her life took a dramatic turn when she met eccentric art student Malcolm McLaren, whom she married in 1967. Together, they opened a shop at 430 Kings Road in London in 1971, which soon became the epicentre of British subculture. The name and wares of the shop constantly changed as they tracked the zeitgeist, more than once even managing to be a step ahead of it. When the world was sporting long hair and wearing hippy fashions, their shop stocked Teddy boy and Rockabilly classics, rocker clothes and fetish accessories. More and more the clothes were put together by Westwood herself, with unfunctional zips, safety pins and standard items of British iconography. In 1976, all that came together in the look made for the Sex Pistols, a punk band that McLaren managed. In their brief but highly colourful and influential career, the band was where the geniuses of the McLaren/Westwood power duo overlapped.

Westwood’s rise to become Britain’s most important fashion designer had to wait until she broke up with McLaren in 1983, though her first collection in Paris came the year before. She was the first Briton to do so since Mary Quant. With her eccentric and erotic fashions, in which historical references now featured more strongly, she anticipated what designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier or Gianni Versace would later popularise – the ambivalent elegance of what is sexually scandalous. Whether in the form of courtesans, wild amazons or royal mistresses, the archetypes of female eroticism became one of her leitmotifs. The Queen of Punk steadily mutated into a successful fashion label and high-fashion eclectic. She is now part of Britain’s cultural legacy, as well-known as tartan (which she constantly uses) or the Queen (whom she met twice to collect her Order of the British Empire and Dame of the British Empire medals).

By incorporating gestures and physical movement in her designs, Westwood gives her fashion a theatrical element. She often puts her models on platform shoes to make them step out more dramatically, and laces them into bodices and corsets to enhance their figures. What matters is posture and dignity.

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