Ermal Hajrizi

Vivienne Westwood: Clothing the Future in the Past

Ermal Hajrizi
Vivienne Westwood: Clothing the Future in the Past

By Meg Singh

(Title image via Marie Claire)

Vivienne Westwood is a designer worth studying both for her uncanny ability to predict fashion trends and remain conspicuously removed, and for the apparent contradictions in her designs that reflect inherent contradictions within the fashion industry as a whole. She has shifted her career and design astronomically considering her gritty punk origins in the sixties and the ethereal silhouettes that populated her catwalks of the eighties and nineties. Yet a closer examination of her career suggests more consistency than previously imagined.  Throughout her career, her creations have reflected past eras as well as challenged the present through novelty of silhouettes, many of which have been incorporated into mainstream fashion.

Westwood describes her work thus: “My job is about manipulating cloth to give attention to the body”[1]. This statement emphasizes her concern with the ways in which cloth, through cut, can present the body in different ways.

Westwood’s career began with her boutique SEX (among various other names) on Kings’ Road in London, which clothed members of the nascent punk movement, notably the Sex Pistols. Westwood herself was at the center of this movement, and influenced its development through her designs. These early designs show the same disregard of trends for which Westwood would later become known. In the late sixties, when loose, flowy clothing associated with the hippie movement predominated the market, Westwood was designing drainpipe trousers, a completely different silhouette. Her experimentation with new silhouettes continued with her creation of a t-shirt made solely of 2 squares sewn together, allowing the article to hang differently on the body than a normal T-shirt.

SEX also sold fetish and bondage gear, which became staples of the punk movement. Even now, decades later, bondage gear has yet to be normalized entirely, a testament to the radical nature of Westwood’s creations. Bondage is still an edgy look, and it is a trend that has retained its edge across decades.

Fred Vermorel, closely associated with Westwood and her partner Malcolm Maclaren, suggests in his book[2] that punk was a deliberately orchestrated movement as opposed to an entirely spontaneous outpouring of self-expression. He writes that punk was “‘rock and roll’s last stand,’ a wry, exaggerated look at rock and roll’s penchant for self-expression." He explicitly aligns punk with movements like situationism but also cites a series of other references, including Marinetti’s futurism. With this view of punk as an orchestrated movement, Westwood’s affinity for referentialism appears to have early roots. Whether deliberate or not, there is no denying that the roots of punk were decidedly countercultural. It was generated as a rejection of prevailing times. 

This focus on new silhouettes and history is exemplified in Westwood’s “Mini Crini” collection of 1986. The dress in the photograph is adapted from a 19th century hoop dress and showed influence from the style of the ballet russes (specifically the Petrushka ballet).

lt was a departure from anything else being done at the time. (The emphasis on the waist stands in contrast to the 80’s focus on power shoulders). Although the hourglass silhouette is not an entirely unfamiliar one, the hoop in the front was certainly novel on the runway. The movement of the hoop allowed for interesting drapes of fabric to work across, rather than alongside, the bodies of runway models, creating dynamism. While the ruffles and length are childlike and playful, the waistline and neckline are womanly. With this design, Westwood reintroduced a dynamism used by dancers decades ago, mixing in other elements to create a truly unique look.

 A piece from Westwood’s 1990 collection. Source: Timeout

A piece from Westwood’s 1990 collection. Source: Timeout

Westwood famously eschews remaining informed of current-day trends. This focus on her own creative path, without regard for prevailing trends, might be a factor that has allowed Westwood to generate novelty and influence oncoming trends. For instance, Westwood's collections in the early nineties introduced many pieces that would become catwalk sensations later in the decade: her 1990 collection (Portraits) show featured body-clinging crushed velvet, a style that was then replicated widely throughout the nineties.

   Winona Ryder wearing the velvet trend in 1993. Source: WhoWhatWear

Winona Ryder wearing the velvet trend in 1993. Source: WhoWhatWear

Westwood debuted platform shoes early on in the nineties yet the fashion world took some time to catch up with her, The trend did not come into force until the late 1990s

Westwood featured the “Statue of Liberty” corset in her 1987 “Harris Tweed” collection, which was the first corset to be worn as outerwear[3]. This trend caught on in the nineties, with the corset top becoming a wardrobe staple. The corset, along with the rest of the collection, was inspired by eighteenth century British fashion.

   Statue of Liberty corset. Source: Vogue Italia

Statue of Liberty corset. Source: Vogue Italia

Westwood’s penchant for historical retrospection appears to be what generates her creation of the new as well as what links her punk origins and the rest of her career. In her body of work, Westwood has created the future through rejection of the present.

[1] In the Videofashion Vault documentary on Vivienne Westwood

[2] Vermorel, Fred. Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, and the Sixties Laid Bare. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1996.

[3] "Victoria and Albert Museum." Victoria and Albert Museum, Digital Media webmaster@vam.ac.uk. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/vivienne-westwood-chronology/.