HerWords: A series examining the women behind punk; anti-establishment, anarchic, opposed to convention and trends. All have made forged their own way, warriors of personal freedom.
‘I lived all my life as if I’m young’
- Vivienne Westwood, Queen of Punk, grande dame of British fashion, one-time agent provocateur and now, a passionate, evangelical even, full-blown activist
- Born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Glossop, Derbyshire, on April 8, 1941
My parents gave me, my sister, Olga, and my brother, Gordon, the most brilliant childhood. I was so proud of Dad — he was such a handsome man. He was quite a sportsman, too, and a very good dancer. Mummy loved singing and adored Romantic poetry. In the evenings, she read us the Grimms’ fairy tales. We were surrounded by love.
“I’m glad I was born in that period,” she says. “I think it’s dreadful now – children are inundated with all this rubbish, like fuchsia-coloured plastic and pink bicycles for little girls. It’s awful.
“Compare that with a child growing up with nothing, but crawling on the floor with little Delft tiles, you know those Dutch tiles where there’d be a windmill or a falcon. Wonderful things to look at. I didn’t have anything around me. No art. And my mother always read to us. That was important, it was how I could discover art.”
“I’ve always felt heroic about my life… As a child, I remember little girls in the playground moaning about how boys could do more than they could. I didn’t think that was the case at all. My parents didn’t treat me as a girl.”
“When I was a schoolgirl my history teacher, Mr. Scott, spoke with pride of civilisation and democracy. The hatred of arbitrary arrest by the lettres de cachet of the French monarchy caused the storming of the Bastille. We can only take democracy for granted if we insist on our liberty.”
- She always enjoyed fashion and dressing up in a dramatic way. At school she customised her uniform and made her own clothes.
- Westwood briefly attended Harrow Art College where she studied fashion and silver-smithing but left after one term, she thought, ‘A working class girl like me couldn’t possibly make a living in the art world.’
On making things:
‘Dad made holly wreaths to sell at Christmas and Mum was a ‘demon’ knitter and very ‘particular’ about making all her children’s outfits’.
I, too, was good at making things. Even at the age of five, I could have made a pair of shoes. When I was eight, I was transferred to Tintwistle church school and had proper sewing classes for the first time, which is where I learnt chain stitch. These were the early clues to what I became — I studied nature, read, sewed and made things constantly.
“I’ve got people here in this company who pay as much to the baby minder as they earn at work,” she says. “Because they’d rather work than look after their child. But I think they have to really think about what they’re doing.”
It seems only fair to point out that Westwood herself works and always has done. “I know and I was a terrible mother,” she shoots back. “I didn’t put my children first. You have to work today to make money but my mother didn’t have to and we managed. I’m really glad to have been born during the war and afterwards during rationing time. We weren’t rich but we were probably happier which I know is a cliché but it was before we had all this…” – she searches for the word – “this stuff.”
My children came out as individuals in their own right. They were not my products. They had their own characters and were very strong-minded. I gave them a lot of freedom when they were still very young. The one thing they got from me is morals. They would never betray anyone. They are really good people.”
- After working in a factory for a short while, Westwood went to teacher training college and then married Derek Westwood and had her first child, Ben. She taught and made jewellery which she sold on a stall on Portobello Road.
- She met McLaren (then Malcolm Edwards) and in 1971 they opened their first shop, Let It Rock, at 430 King’s Road. Vivienne began designing clothes to fill it.
- In 1972, and in line with the fashion that was developing its own distinct character, the shop’s name changed to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die and then, in 1974, to SEX. When, in 1976, the Sex Pistols, managed by McLaren, released “God Save the Queen”, it became known as Seditionaries until, in 1980, and with Westwood disillusioned with the mainstream’s adoption of punk and its main protagonists, she renamed it World’s End.
“The punk always used to take things around himself out of the gutter, if you like, any old rubbish. There were these Irish punks who used kettles as handbags and do you remember getting crisp packets and baking them in the oven so they shrank? They were wearing those like brooches. Then there was Sid [Vicious] with his toilet-paper tie… Malcolm and I always said that we wanted to get off this island and plunder history too, and the world, like pirates. We didn’t want to be seen as token rebels.”
“I’ve never taken drugs.I’m not interested in drugs. I mean, I do love alcohol. But I don’t like to think I’m not in control. I’ve had a couple of puffs of stuff, me and Chrissie Hynde, smoking something. That was a waste of time. It just gave me a sore throat. Next time, I started to hallucinate and I thought, oh no, thank you. I don’t want that.”
“Punk, for me and Malcolm at the shop, became a sort of bricolage: collecting ideas. Collecting people,” “Sex translated into fashion becomes fetish… the very embodiment of youth’s assumption of immortality.”
On Malcolm McLaren:
“I didn’t want Malcolm at first but I did in fact end up getting pregnant by him,” (she was on her way to get an abortion when she changed her mind and spent the money on a cashmere sweater). Malcolm was not the paternal type, so the burden of bringing up the children fell on her. She explains why she stayed with him: “I could develop by talking to him. Ideas are more important than everything, don’t you see?”
“…Malcolm was impossible. Malcolm was so bad to me. I would never have told any of these things when he was alive. He was very jealous of me. He would say things like, ‘She’s just a seamstress’, and, ‘Vivienne would not be a designer if she’d never met me’.
- Vivenne’ designs style are eclectic, a mix of the historical and the modern. Her aim is to highlight and emphasize the shape of the female body. She cuts fabrics in panels or sections to give a more 3D structure. She uses padding, draped fabric, boning and corsetry to exaggerate the bust or the hips.
- In 1981 she showed her first seminal collection in London, entitled Pirate
- In 1992 Westwood was awarded an OBE, which she collected knicker-less. “I wished to show off my outfit by twirling the skirt. It did not occur to me that, as the photographers were practically on their knees, the result would be more glamorous than I expected… I have heard that the picture amused the Queen.”
- In January 2003 Westwood controversially sent men down her catwalk wearing fake breasts.
- Westwood advanced from OBE to DBE in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List “for services to fashion”, and has twice earned the award for British Designer of the Year.
“You know, I never really wanted to be a designer in the first place but about 15 to 20 years ago I decided that if I was going to continue I’d be better off starting to like it. I do think looking your best is really, really good for the spirit and my clothes allow people to project their personalities and express themselves. I offer choice in an age of conformity.”
“My clothes have a story, they have an identity. That’s why they become classics. Because they keep on telling a story.”
“Punk rock, the rubber wear, Buffalo girls or the Mini-Crini, they’ve all got a certain character to them…“I think my clothes are heroic. They always want to cut a figure and have fun.”
‘You have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes’
“That Victoria Beckham, she always looks neat and sort of minimal and tidy”. “That’s not bad and her designs are good designs if you happen to like that sort of thing. But I don’t”. It would be “really great”, she adds, if also neat and “posh – which is good” Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron “formed the habit of not always changing their outfits, and wore the same things over and over again”.
“People have never looked so ugly as they do today, regarding their dress…We are so conformist, nobody is thinking. I’m a fashion designer and people think ‘what do I know?’ but I’m talking about all this disposable crap. So I’m saying buy less, choose well, make it last…in history people dressed much better than we do. If you saw Queen Elizabeth it would be amazing, she came from another planet. She was so attractive in what she was wearing.”
- In 2011 she joined the Occupy London anti-capitalist protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral. She has often outlined her concerns for climate change and during a talk at the V&A in 2009 Westwood said: “There is hardly anyone left now who believes in a better world.”
On being a ‘climate revolutionary’:
“My main point, though, is quality rather than quantity. It’s a question of trying to have less product but for it to be great. I am definitely very worried about the extent of shipping and travelling. We’re a worldwide operation and we’re sending clothes all over the world, all of the time, and we have to find ways of dealing with that, of running down our carbon footprint. I want to see what we can do with the company that will be usefully good. What I’m always trying to say to the consumer is: buy less, choose well, make it last.”
“The fact is that people want to buy things… sometimes even I think I don’t have anything to wear,” she confesses. “I am not a very acquisitive person, but I have to have the best things. Everybody is part of the problem.” She hesitates. “What I say is, ‘Choose well’, because most people just buy lots of rubbish. But that’s very self-serving because people can get something that will last from my shops!
“I’m proud to be called an activist. I have a lifetime of ideas about how to make the world a better place. I’m always worried. I wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s good because I sort things out. It’s been a build-up, having this public face and the opportunity to speak.”
I don’t want to retire because my job gives me the opportunity to open my mouth and say something and that’s wonderful. If I stopped, I wouldn’t have my voice any more and I need it. What I wouldn’t think is good is for a new person to become a fashion designer. I’d think, well, why on earth would you want to do that? There are enough of us now. A girl said to me recently: ‘I really want to be a fashion designer but I also like biology’. I said: ‘Do biology’.”
“I’m not interested (in being an icon), 10 years after I’m dead no-one will remember me… I just want to save the world and get a life….”
“The Adventures of Pinocchio. It’s a philosophy of life… so naughty. So wild. But he’s got a heart of gold. And of course, that’s what saves him.”
“If people really want to be creative, they should read a book, they should go for a walk in the countryside and try to find out the names of what some of the trees are…Start to try to understand the past. And if you do that you will start to follow your deep interest. You may not know what it is right now but you will discover it.”
Done anything punk recently?
Featured Image: http://www.creativeheadmag.com