How Vivienne Westwood and the Slits changed the male face of punk

Punk’s inability to contain women, and their subsequent erasure, has been part of its hegemonic celebration by guys of a certain vintage.

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If you are a punk, or icon, or activist, it is incumbent on you to be a bit bolshy. On the evening of the global premiere at Sundance of a new film about her, Vivienne Westwood issued a statement denouncing Westwood: Punk. Icon. Activist. Well, of course she did. “The film is mediocre. Vivienne and Andreas are not,” she said. Andreas is her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. There you have it: Brand Westwood. No one does it better than the grande dame.

She let documentary maker Lorna Tucker follow her around for years, and was obviously irritated in the process, declaring in tetchy, wandering interviews that it was either “boring” or “bollocks”. Tucker followed her on a trip with Greenpeace to see how the polar caps are melting. This is Westwood’s passion now, but a lot of the film is about fashion. Andreas, the languid German husband who “lavs” everything about Vivienne, has taken over the designing while she saves the planet from fracking. And worse. Andreas is very Brüno, and at one point has a meltdown about socks. It’s all very Fashion, and one is glad that none of these exhausted, stressed people ever have to work as junior doctors or anything.

The film captures the ridiculousness of this world but also its fantastic energy. I remember Westwood shows being as exciting as boxing matches. There is a cast of strange men whose job it seems to be both to finance and contain Vivienne. She has a marvellous ability to induce chaos wherever she appears. There are some completely unnecessary vox pops, though apparently getting Kate Moss to speak is regarded as a coup in such company. But there is much old footage explaining how Westwood rocked the establishment. I am more interested in how she became it – because she did. How many Tory bosoms are upholstered in Westwood these days? The whispering V&A curator unwrapping the Destroy shirt as though it were a Dead Sea Scroll is testimony to this.

It’s the familiar ur-story of punk: the Sex shop; Vivienne as the mad queen, outrunning Malcolm McClaren intellectually, as she says; the brilliant Nineties shows reeking of sedition and decadence and delight. And now this brand is flogged worldwide: she tells a lot of bemused Asian buyers that she has nothing to show them while Andreas prowls around, his knickers showing, having some sort of hissy fit. Meanwhile, a new shop opens in Paris. How this business of consuming pricey clothes fits in with saving the planet is never quite made clear.

Autodidacts don’t seem to feel the need to be consistent or even coherent. Well, Vivienne doesn’t. Sure, she is a genius whose defiant little shimmy as she goes to pick up an award says something more, somehow, than this entire film manages to.

The inability of punk to contain women, and their subsequent erasure from it, has been part of the hegemonic celebration of punk by guys of a certain vintage. No wonder that Viv Albertine of the Slits “defaced” an exhibit at the British Library that spoke of the cultural legacy of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Buzzcocks. “What about the women!!” she scrawled: the Slits, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits, a documentary about the first all-girl punk group will, I hope, bring these women to a new audience. The Slits remain brilliant, shocking, difficult. The idea of a gang of girls who dressed the way they did, long before there was a punk uniform, as Gina Birch of the Raincoats said, was radical in itself. Traffic stopped. Men tried to stab them. Everyone was making it up on the spot, and the same with the music. Somehow, though, Tess Pollitt, Palmolive, Viv Albertine and Ari Up did something far more interesting than the usual thrashy but conventional rock’n’roll that passed for punk. The Slits were the embodiment of the avant-garde.

I didn’t understand them at the time. I was confused by Ari Up’s “cultural appropriation”. We spoke in those terms then, too. “Why has this white girl got dreads?” we’d wonder. Now, the remaining Slits are middle-aged women – Palmolive a teacher, Viv Albertine an author, Tessa Pollitt sadly reliving the last tour with Ari Up. Ari is dead. There is a lot of footage of her, for she was always filming. She was dying from cancer that she refused to treat .

Those coming to the band for the first time won’t really know the back story of Ari, the daughter of the heiress Nora Forster. Her mother married John Lydon. Ari is the wild child, almost feral. Watching as she burns up the stage, with Neneh Cherry dancing, is truly something else. The Slits were soon pushing into reggae, dub, then free jazz, world music, playing with the Pop Group and Don Cherry. They were truly free.

There is a huge sense of loss in this movie. Ari Up has gone, that time has gone, but we can still take away this huge sense of a girl gang who could skank and swagger. They fought with each other, but they had taken on the entire world. There is still something mesmerising about these impossible women that even nostalgia struggles to control.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist
dir: Lorna Tucker (15)

Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits
dir: William E Badgley (15)

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special