British street and fashion culture is the envy of the world. But the grind of professionalism is killing maverick talent

Vivienne Westwood: An Unfashionable Life

Jane Mulvagh <em>HarperCollins, 399pp, £19.99</em>


There is a famous encounter in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. Cedric, a droll, flamboyantly camp social climber, visits the narrator, Fanny, a slightly dowdy young aristo married to an Oxford don. "Aha!" notes Cedric. "So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see!" Fanny says that her scarlet jacket was a present and expresses horror at the waste of money when, expertly, Cedric prices it. "Simply silly . . . there's only a yard of stuff in it, worth a pound, if that."

Cedric retorts: "And how many yards of canvas in a Fragonard? . . . Art is more than yards . . ."

In these brief lines of dialogue Mitford summarises a gulf that exists to this day. Our society seems permanently divided between those who throw around words such as "genius", who believe that couture is high art, worthy of museum status and serious study, and Fanny's spiritual descendants, for whom fashion is all too silly, frivolous and immoral, who believe that the money would be better invested in third-world schoolbooks. Apart from a few protean stylists who can move painlessly from catwalk to thrift shop, fashion for the majority is either bliss or blight.

In this context it is interesting that in these two large books, each devoted to the work of a significant clothes designer, the clothes themselves do not occupy centre stage. They are the chorus, the supporting cast, the backdrop. A biography of a European couturier (even the recent relatively racy one on Yves St Laurent) must focus primarily on the designs. There is not much else. But Ossie Clark and Vivienne Westwood were English artists first and fashion designers second.

Over here we are far more interested in character than clothes; we prefer flamboyance to fabric. In the UK the context of fashion differs considerably from its continental European counterpart. Fashion here is more animated and inclusive, less cerebral and hierarchical than in Europe. So Clark and Westwood functioned primarily as personalities, each emblematic of a particular period in postwar culture.

Ossie Clark's name evokes a familiar pantheon of imagery - prettiness and privilege, spun-sugar rebellion, Mick'n'Bianca, Twiggy and Bailey, white butterflies, Moroccan lamps, dim rooms swagged and draped with ethnic tassels and fabrics, a fog of incense, rose-coloured spectacles and those early cock-sure, thundering chords of the Beatles-Stones-Who soundtrack.

To an even greater extent Westwood represents a paparazzi paradise: designer to the original London punks, she's there too, professionally sullen with her bleach-blonde spiky crop, ripped fishnets, mohair jerseys and all her other provocative, confrontational, hard-edged, asexual clothes; later there's Vivienne picketing for culture in flesh-coloured tights and a strategic fig-leaf, or greeting royalty in a see-through lace dress. Flash! The mini-crini. Vivienne swaying around in her rocking-horse shoes, hectoring anyone on declining educational standards. Naomi Campbell tumbles off Vivienne's ten-inch platform shoes. Flash!

From the beginning, untramelled by idees recues, the untutored Westwood could always pull off a dazzling visual statement, particularly when in partnership (and love) with Malcolm McLaren. Alone she could not inject, Jane Mulvagh writes, "contemporary reference". "The semiotics of the street did not impinge on her isolated sensibilities . . . McLaren had a brazen, feet-on-the-ground, finger-on-the-pulse modernity."

Mulvagh's biography is thorough, well-informed, straightforwardly (rather than theoretically) intelligent and very readable. Naturally she must traverse ground already over-excavated, but she succeeds in illuminating Westwood's contradictory character. Remote from politics or anarchy, Westwood's innate attraction was to a "heavy-handed . . . romantic historicism". Mulvagh displays tact and respect in documenting Westwood's life post-McLaren, particularly in regard to that journalistic banana skin, Westwood's "guru" and self-styled professional intellectual, Gary Ness. Helplessly drawn towards male mentors whose ideas she respected, Westwood remained under the doubtful influence of Ness for years, apparently unable to discern that his self-conscious, self-serving ideas of what constituted an "intellectual" were warped and unbalanced - for example, his wholesale rejection of all 20th-century culture. It seems almost inconceivable that, after associating with McLaren, Westwood could start parroting Ness's weirdo anachronisms.

Mulvagh succeeds in balancing praise and pathos in this poised assessment of Westwood, pointing out how "extremely impressionable" Westwood is, and noting that she is very much better at research and reproduction than originality in design - a debatable contention. With both these books there is some sense of surfeit, of overload. They concern the very recent past, decades that have already been cannibalised, sucked dry, analysed to death. For the computer-literate bibliophile there is little challenge now in cultural research. There is no more "search" in research. It is all available. Every last detail and minor character.

The Ossie Clark Diaries is a much more slapdash book, despite its stylish graphics and great photographs. Perversely, this haphazard quality makes it more appealing and more in tune with its content than Mulvagh's professionalism. There is a disarming foreword by Lady Henrietta Rous, who cannot understand why Clark was "never helped more radically by his extremely famous, rich friends". There are also some truly appalling mistakes and typos.

The body of the book is composed of Clark's diary entries. The resulting minutiae have a salutary effect in demythologising the 1960s and early 1970s, shrinking the starry cast of famous names into bite-sized chunks of real life. So these legendary people get tired and bored and sick; they quarrel and sleep and get divorced and cry. Vividly, unpretentiously, Clark records his decline from prince of the fashion pack, Hockney model and consort of the cool, into forgotten, miserable penury. He was eventually murdered, in 1996, by his last boyfriend.

This is a sad morality tale running from innocence through excess to waste and ruin. Clark's sudden, well-deserved success, his lack of business acumen in the emerging fast-paced society he found himself in and his narcotic self-indulgence provide a more accurate and familiar fable of the period than the lives of tougher stars who endured and thrived.

Clark and Westwood displayed the lack of interest in commerce and professionalism characteristic of true innovators. Today professionalism alone - however mediocre the product - tends to leave talent and chaotic creativity far behind; and both these designers have had countless, and much more commercially successful, imitators. So these books serve as a valuable celebration of two pioneering English eccentrics. Lest we forget.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.