Punk, seams and SEX: the life and fashion of Vivienne Westwood

Jane Shilling reviews a new autobiography of the veteran British fashion designer and punk icon.

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Vivienne Westwood 
Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly
Picador, 464pp, £25

Among the images in Vivienne Westwood’s handsomely illustrated biography is a photograph of her dressed as Margaret Thatcher, used on the cover of Tatler in April 1989. The resemblance is eerie. Westwood captures to perfection Thatcher’s mannerisms: the forward-pitched stance and clasped hands; the disturbing contrast between her expression of strenuous compassion and the naked fanaticism of her gaze. Back in 1989, the teasing image said something sharply irreverent. A quarter of a century on, it gives an insight into the trajectory of Dame Vivienne, once the wayward urchin of British fashion, now its grande dame.

She was born Vivienne Isabel Swire on 8 April 1941, the eldest daughter of Gordon and Dora Swire, and grew up in the Derbyshire village of Hollingworth. It was, she recalls, “the most brilliant childhood”. Money was short but there was freedom to roam in the countryside and Westwood was a bookish child with eclectic tastes.

In 1958, her parents moved to London to run a post office and grocery shop and Vivienne began a course in jewellery-making at the Harrow School of Art. There she became fascinated by the fashion influences of jazz, mods and rock’n’roll and began running up outfits from furnishing fabric. A brief marriage in 1962 produced a son, Ben, but she left her husband the following year and met Malcolm McLaren, who was five years her junior.

Both McLaren and Westwood later vehemently denied fancying one another. “I didn’t want Malcolm at first but I did in fact end up getting pregnant by him,” is how Westwood puts it, recalling that she was on her way to get an abortion when she had a Damascene change of 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?”

Her autodidactic passion for knowledge outlived the relationship, which ended in 1979 when she “lost interest in him intellectually”. But for a heady, anarchic few years, her fascination with fashion and his magpie intellect combined in the variously monikered alembic that was 430 King’s Road (at different times the shop was known as Let It Rock, Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, SEX, Seditionaries and, eventually, Worlds End) to produce punk.

“Punk, for me and Malcolm at the shop, became a sort of bricolage: collecting ideas. Collecting people,” Westwood says, and the spirit of the time is gloriously exemplified in a photograph of her with Chrissie Hynde, their bare behinds embellished with red letters spelling out “SEX”.

“Malcolm wasn’t terribly interested in the politics of it all,” Westwood observes. “He just hated everybody” – including her. As punk imploded and the relationship with McLaren ended in debt and recrimination, Westwood responded with a flowering of creativity. She compares her innovations with those of Chanel, and designs such as the jersey tube skirt, the pirate boot and the stretch corset have entered the wider vocabulary of fashion in precisely the same way as Chanel’s little black dress, masculine tailoring and flamboyant fake pearls.

But while Chanel’s intellectual ambition was pretty much bounded by the walls of her studio on rue Cambon, Westwood has always seen the catwalk as an extension of the literary and political salon and vice versa. Her co-writer, Ian Kelly, argues that her importance as a cultural figure resides in “her conviction that clothing can change how people think. Fashion as agitprop.”

Irksome in short quotations, the vaguely hyperbolic tone is less irritating once you get used to it. Although the biography is written in the third person, Westwood’s trenchant voice and her superlative sense of self-belief rise pungently from the page. She is now 73, but, like that other iconic figure whom she once mischievously parodied, she shows every sign of going on and on. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article appears in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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