Punk Fashion Done Right: Vivienne Westwood
Raucous and untamed, punk rock developed in the 1970s, the voice of a generation of rebels rejecting mainstream codes. One of punk fashion's instigators and shapers, designer Vivienne Westwood (b. 1941) has said that "It changed the way people looked. […] seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way.", Fashion – in the form of leather jackets, studded jewelry, and spiked hair – was key to changing ways of looking and thinking. And Westwood was a perfect model of disobedience. In one image (top left), from about 1977, she wore her "Destroy" T-shirt, circulating via fashion her stance against convention and authoritarianism, symbolized by a bold red swastika, a Queen Elizabeth portrait and an inverted image of Christ on the cross, bolstered by Sex Pistols lyrics. A sartorial manifestation of the punk fashion of Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren, the T-shirt was sold, along with other items in their World's End brand, at Seditionaries, their iconic shop on the King’s Road (which had traded under various names and identities since 1971). This was a defining period for Westwood as a designer, setting in motion a prolific career that has merged design and activism in myriad ways.
While less provocative than the anarchic T-shirts, bondage gear, and giant platform shoes, which are typical of her punk fashion repertoire, a snapshot of a smiling Westwood taken by Peter Cade in 1977 carried a potent message as well. Cloaked in shadow on an anonymous London street, her simple black T-shirt spoke to Westwood's anti-consumerist message, epitomized in the 1970s by the DIY ethos of World's End, and today, by her fervent environmental activism. The message, according to Westwood, was ingrained from youth: "I was born in the war years when there was rationing, and I'm ever so glad I wasn't inundated with product all around me; things were precious, important.” But by the time Westwood moved south from her native East Midlands to the London Borough of Harrow at the age of seventeen, she would have been surrounded by clothing and other objects produced industrially in large quantities. The momentum behind this growth has never slowed, as today's large-scale fashion production attests. In the wake of current sustainability awareness and environmental issues, Westwood's message of discriminate purchase, of the worth of owning a few special possessions, has heightened meaning. This method of activism is personal and effective, reliant as it is on our choice and power as consumers.
From early on Westwood supported sustainable fashion, today's widely held (albeit seldom practiced) design philosophy, to ease the impact of clothing manufacture on the environment. After all, fashion and textiles (after agriculture and oil) are the most polluting industry in the world, taking up heaps of resources and leaving waste behind. Many of Westwood's efforts today, as both a maker and activist, aim at preserving the environment. Whether by acting as a spokesperson for Greenpeace's 'Save the Arctic' campaign or protesting against fracking, she unleashes her inner punk demon. This includes her 2014 Christmas present to then prime minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street and rocking up to his home in an army tank in 2015.
Since her punk fashion days, this radical spirit has characterized Westwood's fashion practice, which digs for meaning, of history, people and the world through construction and pastiche. This was clear from her and McLaren's first London runway collection in 1981 titled 'Pirates', which set about "plundering history and the Third World". From there she's explored subjects as varied as Peruvian women (Buffalo Girls, A/W 1982-83) and the British Empire. In the late 1980s, Westwood's interpretation of British dress merged tradition with humor and shock-value. Viewing her work in museum archives today, one might find, for instance, tweed mixed with ancient Greek pornographic imagery. This search for knowledge to rethink accepted ideals unites her design practice and activism.
Throughout her career, Westwood has spread her powerful messages via the fashion and print media. She expressed her disdain for conservative Thatcherism by impersonating the Iron Lady in a photograph by Michael Robert on Tatler's April 1989 cover. Widely disseminated on billboards during Fashion Week, the bold act is forever etched in history.
More recently, she collaborated with photographer Juergen Teller. In his typical raw, overexposed style, he shot Westwood in garments from her A/W 2011 collection in Nairobi in an effort to document Ethical Fashion Africa. This not-for-profit group, created by the International Trade Centre (ITC), serves to empower marginalized people by connecting them with fashion houses and distributors. Some of Teller's photographs depict Westwood wearing bags from her 2011 'Handmade with Love' collection, made by women from deprived areas in Nairobi in the context of Ethical Fashion Africa. In one image, surrounded by a mountain of colorful trash, Westwood becomes an element in a picture of excess and waste. Her oversized dress with its Renaissance print in tones of brown blends into the dry, natural setting of vegetation, dirt, huts and blue skies. Her high-top trainers, thick socks, and her iconic bright red hair point to Westwood's radical whimsicality and the inherent beauty in unexpected places. The bag she carries, printed with the words "I am expensiv", is a final tongue-in-cheek element that ties the image together, asking us to think about the meaning and value of what we wear.
Westwood's use of her own dressed (or undressed ) body as a platform consists of both personal and public demonstrations, which strengthen her message. In 2013, following the arrest of Chelsea Manning during the Wikileaks scandal, she wore a pin with his face underlined by the word truth to the lavish Met Gala. Westwood was a celebrated guest that year, not least for the fact that the exhibition on display was "Punk: Chaos to Culture". She used her red carpet interview to further her cause, and connect it to her design roots, stating, "I’m here to promote Bradley and he needs our support […] Because punk, when I did punk all those years ago my motive was the same: Justice."
She continued to fight for the cause through punk fashion, using her favorite surface of protest, the T-shirt. With the power to literally speak, a "Free Bradley Manning Truth" T-shirt featured in her S/S 2014 Menswear World's End Line. Also that year, her womenswear runway show comprised of models dressed as Eco-warriors, with bruised face makeup. One look paired a T-shirt with a silk brocade garment that recalled eighteenth-century French upholstery, mixing, in true Westwood style, formal and casual, new and old, punk fashion and activism. The T-shirt drew attention to what has undoubtedly become Westwood's most cherished cause, climate change.
With painted face and T-shirt, she launched Climate Revolution, her campaign to address these issues, atop a float at the 2012 London Paralympics closing ceremony. She runs a vibrant and informative website to support the cause, which eclipsed the recent anniversary of Punk. To mark the occasion, in an act of defiance against those who have turned the movement into commercial nostalgia, in November 2016 Joseph Corré (Westwood and McLaren’s son) burned millions of pounds worth of Punk memorabilia on a boat in the river Thames. Westwood's attention, however, focused on the climate and green energy. "I never knew what to say before. Ever since punk – we never had a strategy then – that's why we never got anywhere. There is one way out of this – a green economy. What is good for the planet is good for the economy and the people." Her point is just as relevant in the fashion industry, which must task itself with changing how it functions, based on what we now know about production and the environment. And as consumers, we must adapt what we wear and how we style ourselves, and, in the style of Dame Viv, be as punk as f**k in the process.