Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in Glossopdale, Derbyshire, on 8 April 1941. Her mother had been a weaver in the local cotton mills and her father came from a family of shoemakers. After the war, they ran a sub post office in Tintwistle and in the late 1950s moved to north-west London.
Leaving grammar school at 16, Vivienne briefly attended Harrow Art College. She studied fashion and silversmithing, but left after a term because 'I didn't know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world'. She worked in a factory and trained to become a primary school teacher. In 1962 she married Derek Westwood and in 1963 her first son, Benjamin, was born.
Vivienne always enjoyed 'cutting a dash'. As a teenager in the 1950s, she customised her school uniform to emulate the fashionable pencil skirt and made many of her own clothes, including a long, fitted 'New Look' dress. She made sleeveless shifts, with a single seam and darts, from exactly one yard of fabric.
Let it Rock
Vivienne Westwood met Malcolm McLaren in 1965, and their son Joseph Ferdinand Corré was born in 1966. Their working relationship, which lasted from 1970 until 1983, launched Punk. Vivienne recalled 'I felt there were so many doors to open, and he had the key to all of them. Plus, he had a political attitude and I needed to align myself.'
McLaren was born in 1946 in Stoke Newington. He attended art school between 1964 and 1971 and enjoyed the idea of 'using culture as a way of making trouble'. He was also obsessed with fashion and music and saw them as inseparable parts of a Rock 'n' Roll outlaw spirit. Rejecting the dominant hippie look, McLaren wore Teddy boy clothes and collected rock 'n' roll, 'the jungle beat that threatened white civilisation'.
In 1971, McLaren opened a shop called Let It Rock, where he sold 'brothel creeper' shoes, and drape coats which he designed and had made up by an East End tailor. The mohair jumpers and drainpipe trousers were made by a local seamstress. Over the next decade the shop underwent frequent changes of identity and stylistic makeovers by McLaren.
Westwood and McLaren's focus soon shifted to another fashion minority. McLaren renamed the shop Sex and he scrawled above the door 'Craft must have clothes but Truth loves to go naked'. The interior was sprayed with pornographic graffiti, hung with rubber curtains and stocked with sex and fetish wear.
Marco Pirroni, of the group Adam and the Ants, recalled: 'The country was a morass of beige and cream Bri-Nylon and their shop was an oasis. It took great liberalism and bravery to wear rubber in the street. If you shopped there, you didn't go anywhere else.' Westwood saw a kind of loveliness in this forbidden clothing: 'All the clothes I wore people would regard as shocking, I wore them because I just thought that I looked like a princess from another planet.'
Sex was intimidating and it attracted an extraordinary clientele, with voyeurs and prostitutes mixing with proto-Punk King's Road shoppers. Jordan, the shop assistant, was even more extraordinary. She wore rubber clothes, a beehive hairstyle and theatrical make-up. On her daily commute from Sussex, British Rail put Jordan in a first-class compartment for her own protection.
Seditionaries - Clothes for Heroes
In 1976 McLaren renamed 430 Kings Road Seditionaries - Clothes for Heroes and redesigned its futuristic interior which featured photos of an upside-down Piccadilly Circus and a ruined Dresden. Spotlights poked through roughly hacked holes in the ceiling and there was a live, caged rat in the table.
McLaren was now manager of the Sex Pistols and a key figure in the emerging Punk Rock phenomenon. The Seditionaries collection was an audacious fusion of all the subversive elements in Westwood and McLaren's recent work. There were the ripped garments of 1950s pin-ups; the leather, chains and badges of the bikers; the straps and buckles of the fetishists. As Westwood said, 'You couldn't imagine the Punk Rock thing without the clothing'.
These clothes were never cheap, but the Punks improvised their own gear and the look spread rapidly. It provoked open hostility and is still potent today. Westwood viewed it as 'a heroic attempt to confront the older generation', but inevitably it was absorbed and disarmed by the mainstream. Westwood, then in her early forties, turned her attention to subverting the Establishment from within.
The early 1980s marked a turning point in McLaren and Westwood's career. McLaren was obsessed with music and Westwood, for the first time, began to see herself as a fashion designer. But she needed new direction: 'We wanted to get out of that underground tunnel feeling of England, that dark feeling.' McLaren said, 'Do something romantic. Look at history.'
The shop was again remodelled and settled on its final apotheosis of World's End. The interior became a lurching galleon with small windows, a low ceiling and a sloped decking floor. The fascia had a drooping slate gable and a large clock displaying 13 hours, the hands travelling rapidly back in time.
Out of it came Pirate, McLaren and Westwood's first catwalk collection. It was shown at Olympia in spring 1981, to a blast of cannon fire and rap music by McLaren. The clothes evoked the golden age of piracy, an age of highwaymen, dandies and buccaneers. As in Punk, the garments were unisex. The collection immediately entered the mainstream.
Nostalgia of Mud
Westwood's horizons opened and expanded. With the help of McLaren, she devised new collections based on ethnic and primitive looks culled from National Geographic magazine. As McLaren put it: 'We want to get out of this island mentality, and relate ourselves to those taboos and magical things we believe we have lost.'
Their second collection was Savage (S/S 1982). It combined Native American patterns with leather frock coats, Foreign Legion hats worn back-to-front, 'petti-drawers' and shorts. Then came Nostalgia of Mud (A/W 1982), with its huge tattered skirts and sheepskin jackets in muddy colours. Punkature (S/S 1983) still had a raw feeling and an emphasis on pre-washed and over-printed natural fabrics. It played on the words 'punk' and 'couture', and carried images from Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner.
In March 1982, McLaren and Westwood opened a second shop. It was called Nostalgia of Mud and the fascia was covered by a world map. The interior was styled like an archaeological dig. Visitors descended on recycled scaffolding to an earth floor and a heaving 'mud' pond surrounded by voodoo-like artefacts. A V&A curator described the shop as 'astounding, totally unique in the retail world'.
For their Witches collection McLaren and Westwood began to conjure up darker spirits. Westwood found 'a magical, esoteric sign language' in the work of the New York graffiti artist Keith Haring. This was printed in fluorescent colours on backgrounds that resembled firework paper.
Witches also featured oversized jackets and coats, double-breasted jackets and huge cream cotton mackintoshes. These were worn with knitted jacquard bodies, tube skirts and pointed hats. The customised trainers had three tongues that emulated the freeze-frame effect of strobe lighting and the jerky sounds of rap music: 'Like sequences of things, where people are dislocated somehow at the same time that they're moving.'
The Witches collection was the final collaboration between McLaren and Westwood. Through their creative partnership, they introduced an entirely new fashion vocabulary which is still influential today.
Hypnos and Clint Eastwood
Spring/Summer 1984 and Autumn/Winter 1984
By 1984 Westwood had moved to Italy with her new business partner, Carlo d'Amario (still managing director of her company). The Hypnos collection featured sleek garments made out of synthetic sports fabric in fluorescent pinks and greens. They were fastened with rubber phallus buttons. The collection was shown in Tokyo at Hanae Mori's 'Best of Five' global fashion awards, along with work by Calvin Klein, Claude Montana and Gianfranco Ferre.
This was followed by Clint Eastwood, a collection that hankered after the wide open spaces seen in Western films: 'Sometimes you need to transport your idea to a world that doesn't exist and then populate it with fantastic looking people.' It included garments smothered in Italian company logos and Day-Glo patches inspired by Tokyo's neon signs.
Mini-Crini and Harris Tweed
Spring/Summer 1985 and Autumn/Winter 1987
The Mini-Crini collection saw an increasingly shaped look, the antithesis of the masculine shoulder pads and tight hip styles that were current in the 1980s. Westwood's historical research had led her to believe that clothes were about 'changing the shape of the body, about having a restriction'. She now wanted to 'make things that fitted'.
Inspired by the ballet Petrushka, Westwood devised a 'mini-crini' that combined the tutu with an abbreviated form of the Victorian crinoline. Though sexy, the mini-crini was also childish. Its shape echoed the old-fashioned party frock, while the polka dots, stars and stripes came out of Disney cartoons.
The Harris Tweed collection celebrated Westwood's love affair with traditional English clothing and also her growing obsession with royalty. It was named after the woollen fabric hand-woven in the Western Isles of Scotland. Many of the garments - the twinsets made by the long-established firm of Smedley, the 'Stature of Liberty' corsets, the tailored 'Savile' jackets - became Westwood classics.
Britain Must Go Pagan
Spring/Summer 1988 to Spring/Summer 1990
The next few collections, which became known as 'Britain Must Go Pagan', were wildly eclectic. Westwood combined traditional British themes with classical and pagan elements. Classical drapery was paired with tweed, Smedley underwear was overprinted with pornographic images from ancient Greece. This strange mix reflected the inherent contradiction in her work, its respect for tradition and culture alongside a love of parody and sexual liberty.
In Time Machine (named after H. G. Wells's novel) Westwood made precise 'Miss Marple' suits in Harris tweed and articulated jackets inspired by medieval armour. Voyage to Cythera, named after a Watteau painting, was another journey into the past. It was followed by Pagan V, in which Westwood turned again to 18th-century France. Printing Sèvres patterns onto classical 'togas', she created a collection that 'telescoped time'.
Cut, Slash & Pull
The inspiration for Cut, Slash & Pull lay in the historical technique of cutting textiles to create a decorative pattern. In the original garments, the slashes exposed bright silk underlinings, but here Westwood reveals bare skin. To give the passionate, masculine vitality that she so admired in Tudor portraits, she used denim with hand-cut gashes and frayed edges. For the lighter fabrics, she adapted a broderie anglaise machine programme, omitting the embroidery but retaining the fine, regular cuts.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Vivienne Westwood: A Retrospective', on display at the V&A South Kensington 1 April–11 July 2004.