An Ode to Westwood

Image Credit: StockSnap on Pixabay

On the 29th of December, the world lost one of the fashion industry’s last pioneers. Holly Alder pays tribute to the punk, icon and activist Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood, born in 1941 in Great Britain, always had an interest in jewellery making, designing and creating her own clothing, despite originally training as a primary school teacher. Everything changed when Westwood met Malcolm McLaren, who also had a keen interest in designing and creating art and clothing. McLaren soon became the manager of punk band The Sex Pistols and Westwood’s clothing designs and creations went down in history within the London punk scene after being worn by frontman John Lydon and other members of the band. 

Westwood and McLaren established a boutique in London called SEX in 1974 which featured punk style clothing, including fetish and bondage pieces, and were designed and created by the couple. The boutique became a local haunt for early members of the punk movement and the shop was instantly recognisable by the sign above the door that bore the name of the boutique in bold pink rubber letters. The Hulu show Pistols, inspired by the true story of the rise of The Sex Pistols, features many scenes that are set in a replica of the boutique back in the 1970s. Westwood was one of the first designers to bring punk fashion into the mainstream, creating pieces that were considered to be controversial, to say the least. 

Westwood would use her creativity to make political statements, with prints and images
scrawled across t-shirts and pieces of clothing that shocked some and intrigued others. The renowned portrait of Queen Elizabeth that was deconstructed with safety pins and ‘she ain’t no human being’ scrawled next to the image designed for The Sex Pistols single ‘God Save The Queen’ was one of many images that Westwood printed onto her clothing, during a time where no other designer had used their designs as a political protest. The images that adorned Westwood’s notorious t-shirts were considered to be almost blasphemous at the time, one of the reasons why she gained so much traction and popularity as a designer. Westwood was different and the first of her kind, and she was certainly not about to slow down anytime soon. 

While the deconstructed and reworked image of Queen Elizabeth was controversial, one of Westwood’s most recognisable and disputed pieces of clothing is her ‘Destroy’ t-shirt, which Westwood created as an anti-fascist protest. The t-shirt, featuring the word ‘Destroy’ in large lettering, has a swastika in the centre with an image of an inverted crucified Jesus Christ down the middle of the shirt. For obvious reasons, the shirt and design still remain controversial today, with celebrities such as British rapper Slowthai wearing the notorious design as recently as last year on stage as an anti-facist statement, and receiving backlash from the public for sporting the anti-semitic symbol. 

Westwood used her clothing as a protest against outdated systems and values and her protesting did what it was meant to do: cause discomfort amongst the general public and draw awareness to discriminative behaviours and beliefs. She used her designs to provoke emotion within those who were lucky enough to come across them, and it worked.

Westwood created a movement of political protest through fashion design, with several designers such as Christian Dior and Moschino following suit with bold statements printed and embroidered across different items of clothing. While the punk movement that catapulted her clothing into the spotlight kick started her career in fashion design, Westwood had many other fashion ventures up her sleeve. She was known for her renowned plaid and tartan print that was an instant giveaway for many original Vivienne Westwood pieces. Her classic corset design is recognisable to anyone who is familiar with the fashion world, being one of the first few designers to transform the undergarment into outerwear. Westwood’s corsets feature the classic boned design with a twist, being a zip fastening up the back of the garment instead of the usual adjustable lace up closure. Her corsets, which are still widely sought after, have been redesigned and essentially copied in the fast fashion world in recent years, making her design truly timeless. Imitation is the best form of flattery, as they say. 

Up until the moment Vivienne Westwood passed away in December of last year, she was designing and creating unique art for others to enjoy. Her jewellery, particularly her orb pendant, has become a staple in recent years for designer jewellery lovers. Westwood’s legendary artwork will live on forever through her designs, and through monumental pop culture moments that will never be forgotten, such as her 1989 Tatler magazine cover dressed as Margaret Thatcher with the subheading ‘This Woman was Once a Punk’ printed underneath the image.

Despite her controversial and anti-monarchist ideals, Westwood was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth to celebrate her commitment to reducing climate change through sustainability within the fashion industry. In true Westwood fashion, a photo circulated of the designer twirling for a photographer, revealing she was not wearing any underwear underneath her skirt, astounding onlookers and creating history with the widely circulated photograph. 

From the beginning of the punk movement, dressing John Lydon and Steve Jones, to displaying her designs on supermodels such as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, Westwood lived a thousand lives in her eighty one years. Her artistic flare for fashion along with her determination to use her voice and talent for what she believed in has changed the fashion industry forever and will continue to do so. While the death of Westwood has left many fans and fashion enthusiasts distraught, her legacy continues to live on through her designs, artwork, activism and the sheer talent she displayed over the years, making her one of the greatest designers of our time.