Feministing Readz: Vivienne Westwood’s Autobiography

Book coverNo woman in the world, knitting in her living room at age 73, could trace a trajectory from nipple clamps to the Climate Revolution––and then call it her life story-–except for the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. A new eponymous biography, authored in collaboration with actor and writer Ian Kelly, charts her influence on the politics and punk aesthetic of post-war Britain. As one of the most famous Englishwomen on the planet, the story is dramatic and surprising.

From humble beginnings in the English countryside, Vivienne Westwood rose, and fell, and then rose again to the top of the fashion world as a visionary who knew how to help express an emerging moment in youth culture––and to dress it before anyone else did. Along with her mercurial creative partner and second husband Malcolm McLaren, Westwood is credited with styling, sounding and shaping Punk; and as if that wasn’t enough, Sarah Jessica Parker chose a Westwood wedding dress for the Sex and the City movie.

The punk wave was more than faddish fashion or music: it was a tsunami of frustration following the broken dreams of the sixties. After punk, neither fashion nor youth culture was ever the same. “Her story,” as Kelly puts it at one point, “defines this seismic shift in what fashion is, and in what it means for Western economies like Britain’s.”

Kelly narrates, in vivid detail, the vicissitudes of Vivienne’s rise from the gritty low culture punk world to the high Paris fashion scene. As he tells it, Westwood triumphed with a deck stacked against her. Her career soared despite discriminatory attitudes towards gender; an abusive husband, and then ex-husband, who spent his life suing her for all she was worth; a competitive and predatory fashion world continually knocking off her designs; the thievery of a dishonest bookkeeper; and her struggles as a single mother of two who had to make ends meet.

While the book compiles these gritty details to make a compelling case for her indisputable influence, it also often reads like one long glossy press kit written by the company’s corporate headquarters. Authorized and composed with the assent of Vivienne it just as often serves as a thinly-veiled press release for her global brand as it does a telling of her life. Glimpses into the high society and glamor of the fashion industry are paired with chapters detailing the socially conscious goals of Westwood’s fashion empire. The last chapter tells of Westwood’s public efforts to raise awareness of harmful labor and environmental practices––fracking, drilling in the arctic, and the clearing of the rainforests.

T shirtBecause this branding is so blatant, it does not distract from the pleasure of reading about the history of Westwood’s indisputably fascinating brand. While the book is mostly told from Vivienne’s perspective, and contains few other sources throughout, she emerges as a multidimensional character despite, or perhaps because of, her authorial control: open-hearted yet occasionally rude, independent but loyal, loving to a fault, fierce, curious, viciously unorthodox. Her long monologues prove her to be a thoughtful speaker, barbed with a sharp wit.

Still, at almost four hundred pages, the biography is occasionally dull. Westwood’s story of raising a family while the world watched her become a punk goddess is far more exciting than her later life as a successful designer. Kelly himself even acknowledges at one point during his narration that “the rise to glory or indeed notoriety is often more intriguing than what comes later.” Wisely, then, Westwood’s wild and wildly influential years forging the transatlantic punk scene–– its non-stop escapades, backroom brawls in clubs, and agit-prop antics––form the core of the book.

Her husband and creative partner at this time, “shock merchant” Malcolm McLaren, was a brilliant designer but a colossal asshole, who shared Vivienne’s intellectual commitment to style. The two understood the power of pollinating cross-media platforms to grab attention and they soon became known as the “Bonnie and Clyde of Fashion.” Their joint aesthetic? Shock, sex, and contempt. Their long-time store on Kings Road and home at Thurleigh Court were never separate from the freewheeling cross-cultural currents just outside their doors; if anything, these spaces were themselves forces transforming the nation at large.

At the start of the 70s, they cut, tore and ripped shirts, mixing and matching old styles, like bricolage. These customized t-shirts––zips over the nipples, graphic lettering, bicycle tires––were a subversive hit. From then on, nearly ever year onwards, they developed new looks, gaining more customers and greater tabloid attention. They sold biker clothes, restyled Zoot Suits. Always their designs were openly provocative. They even were credited with inverting the paradigm of fashion itself when they decided to style “the whole world of underwear as outwear.”

Queen with pin in her face

When Westwood was asked to make costumes for That’ll be the Day, a film about the composer Gustav Mahler, she designed a dominatrix leather suit, “with a glittery swastika and appliqued crotch-top Christ…complete with a Nazi helmet and whip.” Sometimes these designs were, in retrospect, controversial even for Westwood herself. She once made a t-shirt borrowing the iconography of the Cambridge rapist. It was the only artistic decision, she says, that she later apologized for. As Westwood’s friend Gene Krell is quoted saying, “There was this punk attitude long before the actual culture existed. And the attitude was Vivienne. Vivienne enjoyed creating a polemic. She enjoyed challenging you.” But these thoughtless provocations call the practice of an anti-hegemonic attitude without a politics into question. What’s the value of a shock without values?

As the peripheral violence of the punk scene threatened to explode into a full-scale riot, these questions about punk’s expressive stakes were urgent. Today, Westwood appears more as a posh matriarch than as a bloody rebel. Towards the end of the biography, an older Vivienne pays a visit to England’s official Queen at Buckingham Palace. There, Rebel Vivienne becomes a Royal Dame. It is a moment that cannot be read with considerable historical irony: the founder of punk who once stuck a safety pin through the Queen’s lip is being feted by the British Empire.

Her early story as an English woman of the Queen’s generation offers an alternate lens into the history of postwar Great Britain alongside which both women matured. But her later success feels very much of a piece with the England’s transition from its austerity politics into a mass consumer society. Brands soon channeled punk’s authentic alienation into mass-produced forms of fashionable consent.

But this turn of events does not mark the end of the Vivienne’s story. The biography brings us up until the present day: Vivienne Westwood’s brand is crushing market sales and American and British museums are hosting major punk and Westwood-inspired couture retrospectives. Vivienne herself has stayed true to her activist roots, even when the name of the revolution keeps changing. In 2012, she launched her “Climate Revolutionary” campaign at the Paralympics. Last summer, she titled her flagship show in Paris “Everything is Connected.” “Because that is the main message of the Climate Revolution and of my life,” she wrote, “that everything each one of us thinks or says or does can make a difference.”

Ava Kofman would be down to wear Westwood. She is a guest contributor to Feministing. 

All images posted with permission of the Vivienne Westwood Archive.

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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