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Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood: Her life and Legacy

Peace, love and happiness. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. These ideas completely dominated the 1960’s and 1970’s. London was on board with these trends, until 430 Kings Road popped up with a clothing store called Let it Rock.

Owned by Vivienne Westwood and boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, the store was like no other, taking inspiration from rebellious fashion from the 1950’s, which included the reintroduction of leather everything. Westwood and her store changed the fashion industry in England, causing outrage from parents and idolization from misunderstood, rebellious teens. 

Eventually, Let it Rock was simply renamed to Sex, just as McLaren’s band— the Sex Pistols erupted onto the punk scene. The Sex Pistols would later inspire groups like the Ramones and the New York Dolls, but for now, Westwood dressed McLaren’s band for all occasions.

Although they had a short lived career as a band due to the death of bassist Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols helped facilitate the most iconic punk movement, with Westwood inspiring the fashion of this revolution. 

Through the 1980’s, Westwood cultivated a cult following, which gradually brought her to the world of high fashion. She began to open more boutiques around Europe, under her iconic orb logo, and debuted her classic Pirate collection.

This 1981 collection consisted of pirate hats, baggy bottoms and asymmetry and were a direct result of Westwood’s animosity towards hipsters, and their infatuation with tight pants.

Westwood also attempted to “stick it” to the older generations through her designs.

Her most provocative T-Shirt design featured a swastika, a picture of an upside-down Jesus on the cross and the word “destroy” plastered at the top, with Sex Pistols lyrics in the margins.

The intent behind the design was to “reclaim” the symbol, as a way of rejecting the older generation’s taboos and their insistence on labeling the punk movement as fascist. This was and remains her most controversial moment in fashion.

Since the initial creation though, Westwood has changed her opinion on the design, stating that, although the intentions of the design weren’t inherently anti-Semitic, it was still a harmful and hurtful attempt at making a statement. To Westwood now, the symbol of the swastika can never be “reclaimed,” as it will always represent the tragedies committed by Nazi Germany— and will never be punk. 

These were her early years of her notoriety in the fashion world. Though she had once created a name for herself as a facilitator of the London punk fashion movement, her career transformed as she gained respect as a distinguished couture designer. 

Coming from the name of one of her fashion shows, Britain Must Go Pagan, Westwood named her era from 1988-1992, The Pagan Years. This was a critical switch from her punk-rock start, as she began to mimic the upper class in England at the time.

She even dressed up as the current prime minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, on the cover of Tatler magazine. The cover was simply captioned, “this woman was once a punk.” 

Her inspiration for this era didn’t come from the posh, old-money upper class, but rather from a young girl Westwood saw on the train one day. She told The Independent in 2011, “she couldn’t have been more than 14. She had a little plaited bun, a Harris Tweed jacket and a bag with a pair of ballet shoes in it. She looked so cool and composed, standing there.” 

Although she wasn’t fashionably punk at this point, she was still anti-establishment at heart. When accepting her OBE (Order of the British Empire), for her services in fashion, she infamously didn’t wear any underwear while accepting Queen Elizabeth II’s award. It was a money grab for the photographers, a funny joke for Westwood, and alleged “amusement” from the Queen. 

Then came Anglomania. The nineties were the golden years of supermodels, the catwalk, and Naomi Campbell.

Some of Westwood’s most recognizable looks came from this era, whether that be Kate Moss walking the runway topless while eating ice cream, or the iconic Naomi Campbell catwalk fall in Westwood’s obnoxiously tall heels. This was arguably one of the most influential fashion eras of all time, where precise tailoring, historical references and outlandish designs were all present. Fashion at the time was growing into an increasingly respected, mainstream art-form. 

By the 21st century, Westwood no longer needed to prove herself, as she now owned one of the most iconic and respected fashion houses in the world. Boutiques around the world bear her name, as do fashion shows, collaborations and awards. She had marked her place as one of the most influential women in the fashion world, as well as an activist and anti-fascist.

Her anti-establishment legacy was built through protest and creativity, all of which through the art of couture.

As much as the world wishes they could keep these influential and inspirational people alive for as long as possible, Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood sadly passed away on December 29, 2022 at age 81. Her death brought the couture community to a stop and her memorial was attended by some of the most famous names in the industry including Kate Moss, Anna Wintour, Stormzy and Marc Jacobs. Some wore simple all black outfits, while some wore extravagant pieces designed by Westwood herself. 

Although gone, Westwood will always be remembered as a fierce woman and artist who stood by her beliefs, who saw fashion as a means to generate political consciousness, and someone who was above all, wickedly talented.