A Punk Fashion Icon

Women’s History Month: Vivienne Westwood Leaves Her Mark
British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood poses with one of her creations on May 5 1999, on display at Christies in Vienna with more than 20 dresses inspired by 18th century France.
British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood poses with one of her creations on May 5 1999, on display at Christie’s in Vienna with more than 20 dresses inspired by 18th century France.
Gerhard Gradwohl

It’s Fashion Month at ACIT, with our annual fashion show coming up on March 22nd at 6pm. The theme of the show is Fashion Outside the Frame. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was definitely an artist who designed fashion that was “outside the frame.” Our ACIT fashion design students are taking classic art pieces and turning them into art.
Vivienne Westwood was born on April 8, 1941, in the United Kingdom. Her family wasn’t wealthy, her father was a cobbler and her mother worked at a cotton mill. She studied at Harrow School of Art, but she did not graduate in fashion, she was self-taught. Her first job was at a factory when she was seventeen years old, she later became a primary school teacher and she sold handmade jewelry on the side. Westwood was married to a man named Derek Westwood from 1962 until 1965. For her wedding, she designed her dress.

She met Malcolm McLaren in 1965, they married the same year, and together they pursued their dreams in fashion. Their boutique changed names repeatedly over the years. When it opened it was called Too Fast to Live, but it was changed to Too Young to Die, then Sex, and finally Seditionaries. When the store first opened it sold vintage clothes from the 50s, but later they started selling their own designs.

Start of exhibition Rebels and Royals Vivienne Westwood clothing. (Mx Lucy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Westwood told the New York Times, “I didn’t consider myself a fashion designer at all at the time of punk. I was just using fashion as a way to express my resistance and to be rebellious. I came from the country and by the time I got to London, I considered myself to be very stupid. It was my ambition to understand the world I live in.
The style of clothing consisted of rips and graphics that were seen as controversial, eccentric, vibrant, and exceptional during the time. The Punk style drove the couple’s brand, and even when the movement died down Westwood continued producing designs related to it. When asked about her opinion on Punk as a subject for a major museum exhibition, Westwood said this.

The reason why I am proud of my part in the Punk movement is that I think it really did implant a message that was already there. The hippies told it to me, but punk made it something cool for people to stand up for, which is that we do not believe government, that we are against government,”. In 1981 Westwood and McClaren released their first fashion line after a divorce. It was called Pirates, based on the 1980 movie “The Island”. They continued working together for five years until they went their separate ways. While McClaren became the manager of the notorious Punk group the Sex Pistols, Westwood became an independent designer and took part in designing the band’s clothes.

Vivienne Westwood 1981 Pirates line. (David Corio / Redferns)

Her first lineup of products was gigantic and included leggings, shoes, bridal clothing, knitwear, cosmetics consisting of perfume and makeup, and accessories like scarves and ties. At the time many fashion designers targeted specific audiences, usually male or female, instead of having a more neutral intended audience. Westwood’s offerings were non exclusive and her designs were for anyone and everyone.

Fashion is here to help make people look very important. If they have good taste and choose what suits them, I give them options on how they can do that,” Westwood told the Rolling Stone magazine.
For two decades Westwood took inspiration from classical sources and made patterns based on them. The sources she took inspiration from were Jean-Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher, and Thomas Gainsborough, artists from the Rococo movement that started in 1730. For her designs, Westwood received many awards; including British Designer of the Year two times, she was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (or OBE) in 1992, and she was later promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2006.

Westwood passed on December 29, 2022. Throughout her years she has become an inspiration to many people with her take on fashion. Many people remember her as an icon with her controversial and interesting takes on fashion. As Jasper Conran said, “Vivienne’s effect on other designers has been rather like a laxative, Vivienne does, and others follow.”

Naomi Campbell during Paris Fashion Week in the 1990s. (Getty Images)
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