Vivienne, We Love You: The Legacy of Vivienne Westwood - by Niamh Walker

“The only ones who have any culture are the ones who don’t throw away the past,” Vivienne expressed during an interview for youth culture magazine, ID, in 2016. A bold statement, but one Westwood said with firm conviction.

Vivienne Westwood had a strong distaste for iconoclasm, an approach seemingly at odds with the left wing politics that she proudly associated with. The destruction of symbols and institutions that are no longer in line with our cultural, social or political beliefs has always been a key objective of social justice movements. We talk of ‘smashing’ the patriarchy, for example. Grand narratives of the past have enabled insidious, systemic abuses of power to continue across the globe.  So how is it that Westwood’s historically nostalgic designs are increasingly popular among Gen Z? And what does this suggest about her legacy?

In spite of Westwood’s often cynical worldview, her engagement with history through fashion demonstrated a keen sense of optimism for the future. The designer often used materials, shapes, and techniques derived from English aristocratic dress. Extracting the efficacious cutting and stitching styles previously used to adorn British nobility, these symbolic modes of fashion design were now being repurposed to make egalitarian political statements. In recent years, Westwood’s agenda had been firmly set on capturing the widespread anguish surrounding climate change. ‘CLIMATE REVOLUTION!’ roared her banner at the 2012 Paralympics. Seven years later, at the 2019 London Fashion Week, Westwood’s political activism had become even more candid in its open criticism of authority, with one design reading ‘We sold our soul for consumption. Press tells us what we want to hear. To hell.’ Addressing her audience as contributors to such problems was a part of her motivational prowess. Holding the government accountable was a given, but she also warned us against our own apathy or indifference.  Driven by a desire for a fairer, more compassionate world, Westwood empowered both wearers and spectators to take ownership of their transgressions in a bid to move forward and act. 

In her formative years, Westwood took pleasure in making her own clothes. Growing up in rural Derbyshire, her mother worked as a cotton weaver and her father was a cobbler. Thus, it was out of both necessity and an impulse for self-expression that the story of Vivienne Westwood and her brand began. As a young teenager Westwood described herself as having had an infatuation with Teddy Boys (whose look was inspired by the Edwardian era) as well as having been enamored by the excitement and sexiness of rock ’n’ roll. Through the re-fashioning of styles traditionally worn by the aristocracy during Edward’s reign, the image of the Teddy Boy satirized the ruling elite who were beginning to meet their gradual decline. The style was primarily adopted by suburban working class men who were left poor and disillusioned after the war, lashing out on the streets in a bid to expel their anger against a country that had failed them. Associated with delinquency and violence, the Teddy Boy look taught Westwood the powerful political impact that fashion could have, as well as the socially divisive power of poverty when democracy falters. 

As Westwood emerged from her own coming of age she was, as most young people tend to be, confused at the concept of ‘adulting.’ Broke and searching for purpose, Westwood eventually pursued a job as a primary school teacher whilst also making jewelry to be sold on Portobello Road. There is something endearing in the image of Westwood as a teacher. Nurturing, yet an enforcer of discipline; teacher, yet a perpetual student herself. Far from being merely a passing vocation, Vivienne ‘The Teacher’ seems to have been a defining role of hers. “It really was those stupid lyrics, We don’t need no education,’” Westwood said of Pink Floyd’s famous tune, Another Brick in the Wall. Not every idea that came out of the Punk movement was in line with Westwood’s own beliefs. Punk had become a great excuse to get sh*tfaced on methamphetamines, but what good was this going to do for society? As Jess Cartney-Morley recently wrote, Westwood remained ‘anti-establishment, but never nihilistic.’

Whilst nihilistic aspects of the punk movement had come to have some paralyzing effects on the movement’s political agenda, Westwood remained firmly clear on the need for unified action against political and social malady. This was reflected not only in her designs and activism, but also in her personal relationships. Having had several lover-collaborators, including her now-widow Andreas Krohnthaler, many of Westwood’s milestones as a designer were achieved with the support of other people. It was alongside her second partner, Malcolm McLaren, that she established a boutique in Kings Road, Chelsea. McLaren’s primary interests had been in the music business, and though the pair were successful in setting up their Let It Rock shop on Kings Road, their relationship eventually disintegrated, having become mutually unfulfilling. Nonetheless, creative experimentation seemed to define those artistically fruitful early years together, reflected in the renaming of the shop several times before settling on Worlds End in 1976. The pair also contributed to the establishment of the world-famous band, the Sex Pistols. Members of the Sex Pistols came together to form a band having utilized Westwood’s boutique as a regular hangout. With the support of McLaren and his friend, Bernard Rhodes, the band was afforded their first proper rehearsal space as paid for by McLaren himself. With the managerial help of McLaren and co, the band axed and gained several members, changed its name several times, and eventually formed what is now seen as the band that defined the punk movement. Evidently, Westwood surrounded herself with people who were equally as determined in their impulse to create and make change. 

Her concern for a variety of social issues included the need to empower women in their fight against patriarchal oppression. The manipulation of the female silhouette in accordance with patriarchal conceptions of how women should present themselves had long been achieved through the use of restrictive body-shaping corsets. Yet her 1990s Portrait collection changed all this, bringing about a revival in the wearing of corsets, only this time with an agenda to reclaim female sexual agency. Imbued on one such corset was the gloriously scintillating image of Daphnis and Chloe, a painting of Rococo style by François Boucher. A glowing image of eroticism, Daphnis’ eyes hover over Chloe’s exposed breasts as she lays down, gazing up at him. The erotic nature of the image implicates the viewer in a degree of voyeurism. Observing this intimate scene scandalizes the viewer, yet simultaneously elicits a genuine curiosity in the relationship it depicts. Westwood’s use of Boucher’s painting then draws attention to the corset-wearer’s own breasts (hoisted up by the corset’s bony structure), mimetically acknowledging the onlooker’s own voyeuristic gaze. By accentuating female sexuality, Westwood assists the wearer in reclaiming her own sexual agency by having the power to invite observation, rather than to be subjected to it. At the same time, Westwood makes a powerful statement about women’s objectification through the image of Chloe as she is exposed to passing observers. Lo and behold, the iconic Portrait corset has now had its own renaissance, with brands like Pretty Little Thing and Shein producing their own versions. Made with a severe lack of consideration for the environmental and ethical impact, it’s difficult to know what to feel about brands such as these producing their own cheaper versions of Westwood’s far pricier corsets. It has to be acknowledged that for all the brilliant political and social advocacy Westwood undertook during her lifetime, many of the garments she made were quite out of reach for those without well-lined pockets. The truth is that everyone should be able to have nice things, but the fact is that most people don’t. The sharp edges of contradictions such as these continue to cut at the societal wounds that Westwood and her followers have sought to attend to. However, as Vivienne herself embodied, it is crucial not to be thwarted by the often self-limiting contrariness of human nature. Instead we must remain active participants in the fight for what we believe in. 

Westwood’s self-assurance encouraged those around her to share this confidence, though she never let it grow into self-aggrandizement. It seemed far more important to her to achieve something good for the world and for others, as opposed to solipsistically basking in self-admiration. In numerous interviews she professed to know that after her death she was to be very soon forgotten about. She envisioned that the Westwood brand and what it stood for would likely remain, but the idea of having created a legacy through her own image was both unimportant and unlikely. ‘Well, the business might still be going…Well it will be with Andreas. He’ll remember me, and make sure that it’s Vivienne and Andreas, somehow.’ Whilst her impulse might’ve been to self-deprecate, she knew that she could trust herself on the need to inspire action wherever she saw fit. Her faith in others was evident through the great trust she had in Andreas. As her lover, co-designer, and business partner, their relationship was beautiful not merely because she felt he could be trusted to have such input into her designs, but because their connection clearly came from an authentic sensitivity to one another and the designs they worked on inexorably. 

It seems somewhat ironic, then, that someone born into the so-called “silent generation” would later become a heroine for Gen Z, a generation characterized by its outspokenness and impulse to reject the past. Looking back on her life though, Westwood’s personal rebellion appears to have been symptomatic of more widespread, longstanding resentments towards institutional authority and its failure to pursue the best interests of society at large. Such feelings are typically associated with teenage rebellion, but for young Gen Z it seems that too many decades have passed in which failure to face up to major global issues such as colonialism and climate extinction have brought us to a damning present reality, where prejudices remain rife and apocalypse evermore likely. The invention of the internet has emboldened young people to become connected  and speak out on the issues they care about in ways that can gain traction rapidly. The democratization of information and increasingly globalized nature of the world in which Gen Z grew up in has proven to be empowering and disempowering in the most compelling ways. Westwood’s clothes encapsulate these modern paradoxes effortlessly; angry and beautiful, cynical about history and yet toying with the idea of a brighter future. She utilized opulent styles of the past in such a way that liberated them from their original purpose of preserving the singularity of the fashionable aristocrat. Westwood knew that everybody deserved a slice of the pie, and so she sliced it. It’s no wonder that Westwood’s garments have become insignia for the revolution Gen Z seeks. Like Westwood, Gen Z wants to have it out with the past, to rile the people up and allow them to feel their anger. Whether it’s private school girls bedazzling the halls with Westwood’s classic ‘orb’ jewel, or the girl next door who owns an Amazon knock-off because she can’t afford the real-deal, the fact that Westwood’s brand still speaks to issues of inequality is a testament which Westwood spoke out on her own views, and then finely interwove them into the very textiles themselves.