Raised in a small village in Derbyshire, Vivienne Westwood’s career in fashion didn’t start out like many of her counterparts. When she was a teenager, she attended the Harrow School of Art but dropped out a year later because she couldn’t imagine making a living through art. Instead, she decided to pursue a teaching degree at a teachers training college and then became a primary school teacher. During this time, she taught herself how to be a seamstress, even sewing her own wedding dress when she married Derek Westwood. She learned how to sew clothes by taking them apart and sewing them into something new.
In 1965, she met Malcolm McLaren, a rock music manager, who later convinced her to start up a clothing store at 430 King’s Road called “Let it Rock”. Westwood would create the clothes that she and McLaren designed. Their clothes were a revival look based on the delinquent styles of the 1950s youth which is known as the “Teddy Boy” culture. In 1972, the shop’s name was changed to “Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die” where the clothes’ designs were based on the street fashion of bikers and the then popular Marlon Brando’s rocker/biker look as well as inspired by the untimely death of James Dean (Packer, 2010, pp.79-81). By 1974, the shop was again changed to “Sex” where the designs were inspired by the Sado Masochistic culture and mostly were made from black leather and rubber. This “punk style” included wearing spiked dog collars, safety pins, and bicycle chains. Some of the clothes sold were even more controversial than the BDSM style. These included a t-shirt that had a picture of two cowboys with their penises showing. It was also during this time that Malcolm McLaren became the manager of the Sex Pistols who wore their designs and made their clothes popular and the subcultures of punk and S&M mainstream.
In 1976, Westwood and McLaren reinvented the shop again into “Seditionaries”. Westwood wanted to show “the necessity to seduce people into revolt” through her products (Wilson, 2000, p.173). Using sex as a fashion, she introduced “underwear as outerwear” such as bras being worn on top of dresses.
In collaboration with McLaren, Westwood created her first collection themed “Pirates” during the early 80s where they moved from the punk style to the New Romantics Movement. Her clothes featured 18th century clothing combined with the flamboyant pirate style. It was during this time that they renamed their shop into “World’s End” to coincide with the change of their style. This collection was also the first of Westwood’s clothes to ever make it onto the catwalk and was responsible for launching her career as a major fashion designer. Throughout the 80s, she came out with several collections that continued to shock and enchant the world. These include the Savage Collection, Buffalo, Punkature, and Witches.
“Learning Through Action” Technique
Although she doesn’t have any technical background on how to draw or design, Vivienne Westwood has used her talents to become one of the world’s best designers. Her design process, what she calls “learning through action”, is basically looking at the structure of things and finding out how they work. She then reinvents the structure or adds her own ideas to it to create her own style (Wilson, 2000, p.173). As for her sketches, there is not much that is known on her preferences for drawing materials. She has been known to create her beautiful designs by just using paper and markers.
Queen Mother of Punk
Vivienne Westwood has been dubbed the “Queen Mother of Fashion” and the “Queen Mother of Punk Style” because of her huge influence on the fashion industry and her introduction of the punk style into mainstream fashion (Wilson, 2000, p.173). Throughout her career, she is mainly known for looking back into history and creating something new that is bold, edgy, and beautiful (Price, 2004). All throughout her designs, it is clearly seen that she pushes the boundaries that most designers are afraid to touch.
Through the years, Westwood has influenced fashion and people alike. She has taught fashion designers to take risks and buck against conventions to create new styles by combining non-conformity with the classics. She has also shown how old traditional clothes can be remade and reborn into something modern and practical for today’s times. Her influence on fashion trends include the reintroduction of the corset into fashion (which can still be seen today) as well as the “mini-crini” where she used the 19th century crinoline and combined it with a tutu. Her introduction of the “mini-crini” led other designers to follow her style which resulted in that year (1986) being dubbed as “The Year That Went Pouf” (Price, 2004).
Her many achievements include being invited to show her collection at Hanae Mori’s “Best of Five” global fashion awards in Tokyo in 1984. In 1989, she was named one of the world’s top six designers by John Fairchild in his book Chic Savages. In the same year, she was made a Professor of Fashion at the Vienna Academy of Applied Arts which lasted until 1991. She was named the British Designer of the Year in 1990 and 1991 (Breward, 1995, pp.99). In 1992, she was awarded the OBE by the Queen in Buckingham Palace and made an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Royal College of Art. The first Institute of Contemporary Art Award was won by Westwood in 1994 for Outstanding Contribution to Contemporary Culture (Wilson, 2000, p.173). And in 1998, she was given the Queen’s Export Award which honors success while continuing tradition and facing the challenges of a changing world. By 2006, she was made a Dame (DBE) by the Prince of Wales for services to fashion. At the British Fashion Awards in 2007, she received the gong for the Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Design.
Aside from the numerous awards, Vivienne Westwood has been honoured by several museums and galleries. The Victoria & Albert Museum held a Vivienne Westwood exhibition in 2004. In the same year, the National Gallery of Australia also had an exhibition of her 34 years in fashion (Price, 2004). In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited her Anglomania collection. The de Young Museum also held an exhibition of her work at the Herbst Exhibition Galleries in 2007.
Westwood has been presented widely in the media through interviews and pictures so it wasn’t a big leap for her to be profiled on “The South Bank Show” and was the first fashion designer to be given this honor. Aside from this, she was also filmed in a documentary called “Vivienne Westwood’s London” in which she shows viewers her favourite parts of London (Price, 2004).
Westwood’s career in fashion continues to be on the rise. She is constantly influenced by her personality, her artistic and political ideas, and the changing times to design new creations that set the future’s fashion trends (Tatham & Seaman, 2003, pp.89). Although she has accomplished so much already, there is much that we can still expect from Vivienne Westwood in the years to come.
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