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Profile: Vivienne Westwood


Official the undisputed Queen of fashion Vivienne Westwood has already made her mark on the ever-changing fickle world of fashion, creating trends with an iconic status.  However, just to make sure that everyone knows of the importance of her role in our lives the V&A is currently holding a major retrospective of the designer’s 30-year’s in the business.


Featuring over 150 designs from the museums own collection of Westwood’s designs along with pieces from the designers own private collection, the exhibition, which opened it’s doors to the public on 1 April this year, is a must see for anyone remotely interested in both fashion design and historical costume. 


“We have had a long relationship with Vivienne Westwood going back to 1983 when we bought a Pirate outfit to complete the redisplay of the Costume Gallery,” Said curator of the exhibition Claire Wilcox.  “At that time, our collection was mainly couture.  We had Mary Quant and other designers, but we’d never acquired a piece from a designer like Vivienne who was really edgy.  Since then we’ve followed her career with great interest.”


As with any good Queen, an eye for style is a must and Westwood is no exception to the rule.  From her early days of punk through to the elegant and sumptuous ball gowns she brought us it’s all in the exhibition.  Even those now famous blue moc-croc platform shoes that sent Naomi Campbell tumbling down the catwalk in 1993 have pride of place.


Non-conformist and a quintessential British genius is probably the only way you could describe both Westwood and her work.  It was just this style of hers that gave the designer both an OBE in 1992 (where she famously let the waiting press see just what she was wearing underneath, nothing) and the privilege of being the first designer to be profiled on the South Bank Show.  Though life for young Vivienne wasn’t always so glamorous.  


From her humble beginnings as the daughter of a cotton-weaving mother and a shoemaker father, Westwood grew up in a cottage in Glossop, Derbyshire with the less familiar name, Vivienne Isabel Swire.  Finding her fashion voice at an early age doing what most school girls do, customising their school uniforms to suit the days trends, it wasn’t until the young Vivienne moved to London at 17 years of age that her destiny was sealed.


Having married her first husband, Derek Westwood, at 21 in 1962 she began working as a primary-school teacher in Wilsden, North London.  However the marriage only lasted three years and in 1965 the pair divorced.  It was in that same year that Vivienne had her first fatefully meeting with an 18-year-old Malcolm Edwards, aka Malcolm McLaren.


Speaking of her time with McLaren Westwood says, “If I hadn’t been helping Malcolm I wouldn’t have done it (design), I didn’t want to do it.  Malcolm made me, he was brilliant.  He’d make suggestions and usually they were the things that just made it something.”  A young rebel Westwood found her niche in London’s post hippie ’70’s where, along with McLaren, single handily created the punk era, a movement that Westwood called her ‘anti establishment’ era, which sent shock waves through parents everywhere.


The couple opened a shop at 42 Kings Road called “Let it Rock” in 1971.  A year later the name was changed to “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” where the couple sold ‘Rocker’ style clothing adorned with zips and chains.  So popular was the boutique that in 1974 the name was once again changed the now famous “Sex” where McLaren first had the idea of forming a band, the ‘Sex Pistols’.


Westwood began designing T-shirts on which she used boiled chicken bones to spell out the word ‘Rock’, safety pins and rips and tears.  With McLaren having found the members of his new band it made sense that they should be dressed in the boutiques clothing.  With the likes of Jonny Rotton and Sid Vicious parading around in Westwoods designs ‘Sex’ soon became a hive of activity and publicity was in abundance. 


Having caught the fashion bug Westwood decided to steer away from the now popular punk look and instead turned to history for a new approach to fashion.  Taking her lead from the highwaymen and dandies of old the designer created a brand new look for a brand new musical sound -swapping dressing the Sex Pistols to dressing Adam and the Ants -, ‘new romantics’.  In 1981 for her fist catwalk show, Westwood gave the fashion world her Pirate collection, with tri corner hats, white stockings and pantaloons, giving birth to Westwood the designer.


Hot on the heals of her success with the Pirate collection came Buffalo, Punkature – a cross between punk and couture – and the mini-crini.  By the late eighties Westwood was a well established and revered designer, but it was to be her next design brilliance that was to leave the fashion world breathless with awe.


In 1987 Westwood designed the Statue of Liberty corset, turning underwear into an acceptable form of outerwear for the very first time.  Harriet Quick, fashion features editor of British Vogue said of the designer, “She has always had a very subversive spirit.  Whether It’s the way she has used cutting, or has printed a corset with scenes from Boucher, she examines different aspects of the past and of pop culture, and uses some of the ingredients to question what clothing means.” 


Turning to the history books and great works of art the designer made bustles, tartan, and long flowing romantic gowns into hip and trendy works of fashion.  


And now, having just turned 63 and with a new husband on her arm, a former student of Westwood Andreas Kronthlar, the designer is being honoured with the biggest retrospective of a British designer the V&A has ever held.  With celebrities and the fashion press still singing her praise it looks like her time on the fashion throne is not yet over, but what does her majesty think of the 30-year’s worth of work she has produced?


“Every outfit is such a feast for the eyes, I think it’s the same as the relationship authors have with their characters, these clothes have a life of their own now.” 


So please raise your glass to many more years of her majesty Queen Viv.  All hail Queen Vivienne, long may she reign.



By Nicola Brewer


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