Vivienne Westwood – Biography


Words and artwork by Ryan Graham

Vivienne Westwood is regarded as one of the most successful fashion designers of all time. Her career has spanned over three decades and her influence has not only affected the fashion industry, but society at large. But just how exactly does someone become one of the most recognised names in the world? This piece aims to guide the reader through the life and career of Vivienne Westwood, with an aim to educate and inspire.

On the 8th April 1941, Vivienne Isabel Swire was born to parents Gordon and Dora Swire in the village of Tintwistle, Derbyshire. Westwood recalls her admiration of clothes from a young age. As a child she was somewhat irate as it seemed to be the little girls with curls who were viewed as pretty, whereas she never donned twee lace dresses and the sort. Westwood’s signature outlandish aesthetic may be traced back to her youth as she recalls always liking the idea of frilly, more decorative things, despite suiting reserved clothing. Vivienne would transform her school uniform in order to emulate the fashions of the time- such as pencil skirts, which she claims would have to be altered to extreme lengths. Never allocated a great deal of spending money by her mother and father, Westwood would spend her money on material.  By making her own clothing she would achieve a dress out of no more than a yard of fabric. She would occasionally buy a pair of shoes.

At the age of 17, Westwood and her family moved to Harrow, London – where she studied at the Harrow School of Art. It was here she explored her talents further, studying fashion and silversmithing. Despite her previous personal successes with fashion, doubt struck her. Leaving school after one term she recalls “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world”. After leaving the school, Westwod took up factory work and studied to become a school teacher. During this time, she would create her own jewellery – selling it on a stall on Portobello Road.

In 1961, she met Hoover factory apprentice Derek Westwood. The pair married on 21st July 1962. Visiting fashion once more, she created her own wedding dress for the ceremony. Their first son Benjamin Westwood was born in 1963.

Despite having an admiration for fashion and the ability to make clothing, Westwood claims she never wanted to be a fashion designer – only exploring it further as a means of helping then boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, whom she met in 1965 – officially ending her marriage to Derek. Westwood gave birth to their first son Joseph Ferdinand Corre in 1966. The pair’s working relationship lasted from 1970-1983. Throughout this period, the pair launched the punk aesthetic. Westwood recalls that McLaren “had a political attitude and I needed to align myself”

At a time where fashion was still largely influenced by the recent human rights developments of the swinging sixties, Vivienne and Malcolm McLaren were more interested in rebellion – clothing inspired by 1950’s music, memorabilia and nostalgia. Westwood would make Teddy Boy clothing for McLaren, who rejected the hippy movement within fashion.

In 1971 the pair opened “Let it Rock” at 430 Kings Road. The shop sold Brothel creepers and drape coats that were designed by McLaren and made by an East End tailor. Mohair jumpers and drainpipe trousers made by local seamstresses were also sold in the shop. Throughout the years the shop underwent many changes according to the pair’s inspirations and creative visions at the time.

By 1972, the pair’s aesthetic preference moved towards all thing biker. Zips and leather were the predominant features of their designs. At this point the store was rebranded with skull and crossbones, and renamed “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die”. The duo began to create t-shirts displaying provocative messages and as a result were prosecuted under obscenity laws. In true anti-disestablishment fashion, their reaction was to create even more offensive clothing.

The pair’s interest moved towards another fashion minority in 1974, and the shop was rebranded again, this time as “SEX”. The shops interior was embellished with graffiti and pornography and rubber curtains were hung. Described as ‘Rubber wear for the office”, the clothing at the time was brave and outlandish. Even more outlandish was the shop assistant Jordan who wore rubber clothes and very theatrical makeup –an extreme aesthetic at the time. British Rail would put Jordan in a first class compartment for her own protection on her daily commute from Sussex.

By 1976, the shop had been rebranded yet again, this time as “Seditionaries- clothes for heroes”. The interior of the store featured a live caged rat within a table, and spotlights shone from above – through hacked holes in the ceiling. At this time, McLaren was manager of The Sex Pistols. The group reached number one with “God Save the Queen” in 1977, and the punk movement took hold of England. The pair designed clothing that merged elements of their recent work and openly celebrated subcultures they had explored. Garments were torn – inspired by 50’s pinups, leather, chains and badges of bikers were included; in addition to straps and buckles of fetishists. Westwood claimed it to be ‘a heroic attempt to confront the older generation’. The media named the aesthetic punk, something that would leave Westwood uninspired due to its proliferation into mainstream society.

Unsurprisingly the shop was rebranded once more as ‘Worlds End’, and is still open today. Its interior resembles that of a Galleon, it’s most notable feature is a 13 hour clock upon the face of the building, that moves backwards. The shop sells bespoke pieces, prototypes and classics created by Westwood.

In 1981, Vivienne Westwood saw herself exclusively as a fashion designer for the first time. Turning to the historical for inspiration, Westwood revealed her début catwalk show ‘Pirates’. The collection offered a romantic aesthetic that that emulated the golden age of piracy and highwaymen, all the while being accompanied by the sound of cannon fire and music created by McLaren. Westwood’s aesthetic went mainstream once more, solidifying her presence as a designer.

Since her first runway collection, Westwood has slowly built her reputation as a globally sought after designer. Her work has drawn influence from both the historical and political; however, her work can be devised into three distinctive phases: The Pagan Years, Anglomania and Exploration.

The Pagan Years

During the pagan period Vivienne’s inspirations changed from punks to Tater girls wearing clothing that parodied the upper classes. One of her most prolific collections to date, the Harris Tweed collection of autumn winter 1987 was inspired by a chance encounter.

“My whole idea for the collection was stolen from a little girl I saw on the tube one day” – the girl had a plaited bun, a Harris Tweed jacket and was carrying a bag with ballet slippers within. Westwood recalls the young girl looking composed and cool.

The collection itself carried a childish, juvenile look, and celebrated Westwood’s admiration for the traditionally British and her ever growing obsession with the royal family. The garments were composed of mainly British fabrics, predominantly wool – something that Westwood promotes as the most economically sustainable fabrics of current time. In addition to this, two Westwood classics were born, the tailored Saville Jacket and the Statue of Liberty corset.

Anglomania 1993 – 1999

Westwood’s Anglomania collections are based upon Westwood’s belief that Fashion is a combination and exchange of ideas between England and France. She believes the English carry tailoring and an easy charm, where the French have solidity of design and proportion that is derived from a sense of never being satisfied as something can always be refined and made more perfect.

Exploration – 2000 – present

In recent years, Westwood has begun to put past historical inspirations to rest, and instead has moved towards her exploration period, exploring a more asexual cut of garment. Layers of luxurious fabrics overlap and envelop the male and female forms. Garments have asymmetric cuts and silhouettes form a sexless mass of fabric. The outcomes are usually rendered genderless – wearable to both men and women.  Elements of Westwood’s previous collections are evident within her contemporary work, from the fabrics used to the political and historical influences she takes. Checks and tartans are signature features within Westwood work, in addition to deconstructed silhouettes.

Political Influence

Although being recognised globally for her contribution to fashion, Westwood is equally as well known for her political activism and strong minded opinions. In April 1989, Vivienne appeared on the cover of Tatler magazine dressed as then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The headline read “this woman was once a punk”. The cover is said to have infuriated the prime minister, and is regarded as one of the magazines’ most memorable covers.

In recent years Westwood has publicly fought against climate change and the “drug of consumerism”. With an aim of guiding people towards the arts and culture as a means of educating oneself, Vivienne has published her manifesto, “Active Resistance to Propaganda.”

“My manifesto is saying, essentially, every time you learn something, you see something you understand, you are helping to change the world and you are a freedom fighter. Even if it just means looking a word up in the dictionary you didn’t know before”

Vivienne claims that we have exploited the planet for it resources cheaply, and as a result have hit both economic and environmental disaster. She explains, what’s good for the planet is good for the economy. Features of her political thought process in relation to her manifesto are frequently visible within her collections.

Westwood asserted her political agenda most recently protesting at the 2012 Paralympic Ceremony. Playing the part of historical Queen Boudicca, her face adorned with black graphic makeup, riding upon a float accompanied by Son Joseph and husband Andreas, Westwood’s dress was unfolded in front of millions of viewers worldwide – reading Climate Revolution. The plan to unveil her climate revolution banner was kept under arms, as Westwood knew event organisers would prevent her from doing so, however the message was received and attention was garnered towards the intended issue of saving the planet. Westwood’s Climate Revolution is as follows:

1)    Assert the connection between the climate crisis and the economic crisis.

2)    Implement two measures without which we cannot stop climate change:
i.    Establish the Artic Commons
ii.    Save the Rainforest
Both of these are possible right now.
3)    Tackle the need for clean energy. The quickest safe option is nuclear. The problem is that the public is against it. We think this is because of false propaganda from the press who have massively misrepresented the facts to satisfy the thrill of a good scare story. (You can still be part of the Revolution even if you don’t agree – it’s just that time is running out and we need to decide.)
4)    Curb the Corporations, especially the extractive industries and agribusiness. (We notice a recently coined word, “Corporocracy”.)
5)    We shall now form a cabinet of operations – to include NGO’s, businesses and celebrities with access to the social media.

How to join the Revolution

1)    Money is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
2)    Quality v Quantity
3)    Buy less, choose well, make it last (we don’t want the “latest thing” just for the sake of it.)  “I never waste money I spend it”- Oscar Wilde. Maybe you’ll give a donation to an NGO or charity.
4)    Prepare and cook your own food.
5)    Cut out plastic when possible, for instance making a plastic bottle consumes 50 times the amount of water than it contains.
6)    Inform yourselves.
7)    NGO’s: there are thousands, follow one in particular and give your support. You will learn a lot.
8)    Consider the responsibility of not having or having children.
9)    Take an active part in the Revolution as it starts to build.
10)  Engage in art and culture (Get off the consumer treadmill; discriminate, don’t suck up.)

Westwood’s presence within the fashion industry has reigned strong for over 30 years, from her beginnings within the punk movement, to her attempt at saving the world, her influence is undeniable. It is forever interesting to look at her past collections and wait in anticipation for her upcoming ones, always bringing something fresh and new, whilst till retaining her distinctive signature style. Her creative aesthetic is truly her own, and has inspired millions to embrace a more creative and expressive way of adorning themselves. So long as she continues her work, the world will be a more culturally, and aesthetically interesting one.

“I think stamped-out clothing is just for clones and I think everybody looks terribly miserable”


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