On December 29th, 2022, the fashion world lost yet another legend. At age 81, Dame Vivienne Westwood died peacefully in her London home, leaving behind one of the most well-known brands in the world. Westwood gifted us with some of the most unforgettable moments of fashion; from her significance in the modern punk era to her iconic 1985 spring-summer collection, Westwood never failed to make her mark. But how did the Mother of Punk gain her status as one of the most unconventional yet greatest British designers?
Before she entered the fashion world, Vivienne had already settled into her life, married to Derek Westwood, and working as a teacher. But this all changed when her marriage disintegrated, and she met future Sex Pistol’s manager Malcom McLaren. Here, her life took a complete 180. Leaving her job as teacher, Westwood’s eyes were opened to a world of creative freedom, a multitude of new designs, and, most significantly, the punk aesthetic.
Together, McLaren and Westwood opened their first boutique in Chelsea called “Let It Rock” in 1971. Here, the pair rebelled against the hippie movement that took over the late 1960s, opting instead for the punk, rock and roll style of the 50s. From bondage trousers to ripped t-shirts overflowing with anti-establishment graphics, Westwood indulged in the unconventional, erotic area of fashion. Soon, this provocative shop became a huge hit and Vivienne became a youth fashion mecca, particularly within the London punk scene. When McLaren became the manager of Sex Pistols, Westwood helped design all their pieces and quickly contributed to establishing their unique punk identity.
However, it wasn’t long before their maverick designs landed them in the centre of the right-wing media of the 70s. In 1975, their erotically charged fashion designs landed both Vivienne and Malcom under prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. But even legal action couldn’t put a stop to her rise in popularity. Rather than slowing down, Vivienne pushed her political modern twist into her designs even further. Rebranding their shop “Sex” in 1977, the innovative couple continued designing alluring and controversial clothing.
In 1981, the Westwood and McLaren’s first catwalk show took place. To this day, the collection is one of the most iconic moments of Westwood’s career. Bursting into the London fashion scene, her vibrant blend of pirate looks, romantic colours and her own positive twist on punk established Westwood’s position in the industry, and despite their personal separation she and McLaren remained professional partners for an additional five years.
Her first mark as an independent designer came in 1985. Departing from her erotic punk aesthetic, Westwood’s new spring-summer collection took inspiration from the monarchy and British history. She even took inspiration from classical art such as the works of Francois Boucher and Thomas Gainsborough. Newer garments such as the mini-crini and princess line coats were also introduced here. Through this expansion into new inspirations, Westwood was able to mark her position as a designer in a new light, and to independently build her own mini fashion empire. In 1989, famous publisher and editor John Fairchild included Vivienne Westwood in a list of the world’s top six designers, alongside the likes of Saint Laurent and Armani. Her presence was now set globally.
While the late 80s saw her aesthetic expand from punk and erotica to ‘tattler’ girls and a chic upper-class vibe, Westwood continued to wear her political views quite literally on her sleeve. By 1989, Vivienne was running a multimillion business, yet still decided to dress as Margaret Thatcher for the cover of Tatler Magazine — her political activism was going nowhere.
Vivienne continued to create controversy in the fashion world for years to come. In 1997 she, Chrissie Hynde and Shopgirl Jordan stood with their backs to the camera and flashed their bottoms which were painted with the word “sex”, homage to Vivienne’s boutique at the time.
By the 2000s, Westwood was one of the largest designers in the world. Nicknamed the Mother of Punk, a retrospective devoted to her creations opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, at which point her jewellery and garments were dominating almost every fashion week and her iconic orb logo was known by thousands.
Her international fame never died down, but neither did her political activism. Shifting her concentration to climate activism, Westwood released a manifesto called “Active Resistance to Propaganda”, in which she urged the fashion industry to take measures to protect the environment and stop animal cruelty. In 2015, she drove a tank into former Prime Minister David Cameron’s home in Oxfordshire as a protest against fracking. Gaining an OBE and DBE for her work in both fashion and activism, Westwood’s advocacy is something she states as one of her biggest achievements in life.
She continued to create collections until her final spring-summer collection in 2022, in which she placed a modern spin on her signature chic elegance, with bold colours and denim. However, this would be her final collection before she passed alongside her loved ones.
Vivienne Westwood once said that said “the only reason I am in fashion is to destroy the word ‘conformity'”. A brief look into her life proves that this is exactly the legacy the fashion icon leaves behind. From her unconventional creation of punk to her long-established love for all things tweed and chic, Dame Vivienne Westwood has undoubtedly shifted the fashion industry. This, combined with her outstanding contribution to activism, marks her as one of the most iconic fashion designers to exist.
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