Vivienne Westwood (nee Swire) was born during World War II in Derbyshire, England. Her father was from a family of shoemakers and her mother was a cotton weaver. Miss Westwood has called her parents “very bright, clever people” and having been raised of working class parents in post war England, Vivienne disliked waste, and knew she needed the self-reliance to make it in the fashion world she was born to love. When she was sixteen, her family moved to London in search of a better life, and Vivienne dropped out of high school to attend Harrow School of Art.
Interestingly, she switched from fashion to silver-smithing because she enjoyed “making things” rather than “just drawing”. She met her first husband, Derek Westwood, in 1962. She became a primary school teacher, a post she believes served her well throughout her career on many levels. She now holds the post of Professor of Fashion at the Berliner Hochschule der Kunstestill. With Westwood, she had a son, Ben.
In 1965 she met Malcolm McLaren, an art and drama student whose family ran a small clothing factory. McLaren was flamboyant, and introduced Vivienne to a different life of museums and poetry. He, like Vivienne, adored clothes, and with his anti-authoritarian attitudes and her rigorous standards, they became the natural parents of Punk, the Seventies anti-establishment culture. For those who believe that the Sex Pistols began the Punk movement, be reminded that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were a part of each and every early aspect of it, including the designing of the Punk Look for the band. It is even said that when Vivienne Westwood, upon the suggestion of Malcolm, cut her hair short, bleached it blonde and razored it---the prototype Punk look--she influenced the early style of David Bowie. Their store Let it Rock (later renamed Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die) became the Mecca for the Punk movement. The ultimate hip hang-out was also a place where people were made to feel welcome and comfortable. Interestingly enough, Miss Westwood has never diverged from this path of maintaining a nurturing environment in her stores. Her Davies Street in London is still one of my favorite places to visit, and I enjoy the company of the charming staff while perusing the amazing clothes.
Leopard, Lurex, Punk, Rococo, classic English tweed, crisp cotton pinstripes, prim, proper and viscerally sexual---these are but a few of the elements which unite the tradition and style of Vivienne Westwood. What I most love are her corsets. I am a collector, but was unable to visit Miss Westwood’s Davies Street store, where her upscale Gold Label collection is sold, until the mid-nineties.
Funnily enough, though I have referred to her establishment as “nurturing” my first visit was actually anything but! The store is so cognoscenti, so hip and really so exclusive that I had to work up my courage for my first visit. I went to the store with my husband and rang the bell. A young woman, who looked like a clone of Miss Westwood, met me and politely but coolly informed us that the store was closed that day because a movie was being filmed there. Now that is hip! I thought. I went back the following day, and to my initial dismay, realized I had better love my own body if I was to wear the clothes of Miss Westwood. The dresses plunged in the front and hugged the rear. I was afraid to even look in the mirror. The sales staff was encouraging. It’s wonderful to show you are a woman, they kept telling me. Once you get used to the idea, you will never want to look differently.
Now I am used to it, and the many fabulous Westwood corsets, dresses, blouses and gowns in my closet are a testament that one of my favorite designers helped me to appreciate my body—no mean feat in an era in fashion where a woman’s true form is disparaged in favor of an adolescent’s frame. It is said that Miss Westwood is abandoning her corset look in favor of a Grecian goddess silhouette. As she has embraced everything from the seventies Punk of Johnny Rotten to the French Rococo painter Francois Boucher, I will watch and no doubt personally enjoy this new phase as well.
Miss Westwood is the subject of a brilliant retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which runs through July 18th, 2004.