Vivienne Westwood Los Angeles Photo Credit: Jiroe Matia Rengel via Unsplash

Vivienne Westwood: The Dame of Punk’s Legacy

By Katherine Prentice

Katherine Prentice gives an overview of Vivienne Westwood’s legacy following the iconic fashion designer’s death on 29th December 2022.  

Pioneering fashion designer Vivienne Westwood sadly passed away on December 29th at age 81, leaving behind a legacy of legendary fashion looks, moments, and a lifetime of advocating for environmental and social issues close to her heart. Westwood captivated the fashion industry and the public alike for decades, beginning in 1971 with the opening of her and Malcolm McLarens London boutique Let It Rock, opened after she left her previous marriage with Derek Westwood and her career as a primary teacher.  

Let It Rock primarily catered to the Teddy Boys in the beginning, a style known mostly for the questionable haircuts, clunky ‘creeper’ shoes,  and suits inspired by turn of the century Edwardian styles, which didn’t catch on amongst the upper class and were sold at lower prices to the working class from 1951. Of course, there was associated music and dance styles too, but Westwood and McLaren catering to these Teddy Boys didn’t last long as Westwood predicted fashion would move forward from the Teddy Boy revival of the 70’s, however her provocative T-shirts often featuring bold graphics and political messages sold in Let It Rock began to set her apart from the crowd. 

As Westwood developed her style and began to move away from the Teddy Boy style, the boutique was rebranded (a common occurrence moving forward) as Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, and later to simply Sex, which would prove a successful move as it proved rather memorable. Westwood began moving into the styles many associate her with and was a pioneer in the British Punk and New Wave movements, adding her own twist to what she saw others wearing at concerts in London including distressed garments, exposed stitching, graphic tees, and the tartan iconic to her look today.

Around this time, McLaren began managing The New York Dolls, and after they disbanded he formed The Sex Pistols out of customers and employees of Sex. With their rising fame, helped in no small part by the controversy surrounding ‘God Save the Queen’ they brought Westwood and McLaren with them. Vivienne did all of The Sex Pistol’s on-stage outfts, pioneering the Punk style in the process. The Sex Pistols and New York Dolls proved too fast to live themselves, but Westwood managed to constantly move forward and reinvent herself and her brand, often when it was at the height of its popularity, and always maintained an identiy of her own, so when The Sex Pistols broke up in 1978 it was an exciting new beginning for Westwood’s career. 

The 1980’s was an amazing time for Vivienne Westwood and full of important milestones and amazing looks. Marking this new beginning, the store Sex was rebranded to its current name Worlds End, and given the iconic storefront and 13 hour clock that it has today. Westwood’s first runway show was in 1981 at London Fashion Week, titled Pirates, and although still a collaboration with McLaren was a huge step for her. 

In her Pirates collection we can see Westwood is branching out from the punk style she embraced and created in the 1970s, although she is still leaning into rebellious, bold looks but now moving into a New Wave style more than punk. She also established what will be a running theme of repurposing styles from the past, such as corsets or her iconic ‘mini-crini’ hooped skirt, into fun, modern looks. This was something different, not just for Westwood but for fashion as a whole, and people took notice within the fashion industry. There are elements of costume, somewhat unavoidable with such a bold theme, but this is more than spectacle and stage wear and items from this collection such as the Pirate Boots remain iconic, and the bold, asymmetrical silhouettes are something she embraced for the rest of her career. 

Witches, Westwood and McLarens 1984 Fall/Winter Collection was to see Vivienne Westwood catapulted into the mainstream for the first time. This collection, titled Witches, was a collaboration with designer Keith Haring, which garnered attending on its own, but it was when Madonna sported the collection for a photo shoot that things really took off, carrying into the late 1980s. At this time, McLaren was reportedly telling Westwood she was little more than a seamstress and the pair separated, and now Vivienne Westwood began building her solo brand. 

Crucial to this was her 1987 Harris Tweed collection, where she used this more traditional, high-end material in her bold and innovative designs. Harris Tweed is a very high quality, durable material, and so pairs well with Westwood’s buy well, buy less message.  As Harris-Tweed was dwindling in use, they seemed more than happy to allow her to repurpose their logo, adding a ring like the rings of Saturn to symbolise tradition vs innovation in the two logos, as always putting her own spin on things she enjoyed. 

Things continued to only go up for Westwood in the 90’s, and she was awarded British Designer of the Year in 1991, and in 1992 Queen Elizabeth granted her the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, where Westwood caused quite a stir by going commando to the ceremony, which I have to say is iconic behaviour. Her links to The Sex Pistols only added fuel to the fire, however Elizabeth reportedly found it all quite funny despite the headlines of her undermining the respectability and authority of the monarch. In 2006 Liz made her a Dame, the highest honour, so clearly wasn’t too annoyed.

Westwood continues to make somewhat hilarious headlines, and in 1993 had none other than Naomi Campbell in her runway show where, due to rubber tights catching, she fell, and the photos of Campbell laughing on the ground cemented this as a huge moment in runway history only furthering Westwood’s fame. Memorable moment in runway history. Only a year later Westwood caused a stir with supermodel Kate Moss walking the runway as a shirtless Marie Antoinette eating an ice cream. This amusing jab at the elite is all the more impressive when you consider having Kate Moss at the height of her career in your clothes would make those clothes famous, but Westwood sent her out in next to nothing to make a bold point, and into the 2000s her advocacy continued and Westwood remined vocal about political and social matters. 

The  Vivienne Westwood slogan is, to this day, buy less, choose well, make it last, a bold slogan for a fashion designer who surely would hope first and foremost to sell more clothes. But Westwood has been advocating for fashion sustainability for decades, before it was a topic we all know and before companies greenwashing was even coined. Her brand is one of few independent fashion houses, uses sustainable materials, and pushes the quality over quantity message over the consumerist messaging of most brands. Westwood has evidently been a pioneer and innovator in more than one sense for the fashion world, and her methods, designs, and messages should be remembered and celebrated for years to come. A particular favourite of mine is this wedding dress below from Westwood’s 2008 collection Chaos Point, where she used drawings by school children who she asked to draw what a freedom warrior and environmentalist looks like. This colourful creation contains a nod to her first career, but also to the future these children will inherit, and will need to be fighting for the environment themselves. 


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