Obituary – Dame Vivienne Westwood – Pioneering British Fashion Designer
The life of Westwood, who has died aged 81, was both rackety and responsible. She went on behaving as an eternal student, although she had dropped out after one term at Harrow Art School because, as a working-class teen, she had no idea how to make a living from art. She was candid with biographers and interviewers that her real, worldly education came from relationships, usually with men for whom she was the practical back-up, paying the bills or totting up the till receipts.
- Died: December 29th, 2022
- Details of death: passed away peacefully, and surrounded by her family in Clapham, south London.
Westwood was born in the village of Tintwistle, Cheshire, on 8 April 1941, as the daughter of Gordon Swire and Dora Swire (née Ball), who had married two years previously, two weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War. At the time of Vivienne’s birth, her father was employed as a storekeeper in an aircraft factory; he had previously worked as a greengrocer.
In 1958, her family moved to Harrow, Greater London, and Westwood took a jewellery and silversmith course at the University of Westminster, then known as the Harrow Art School, but left after one term, saying: “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world”. After taking up a job in a factory and studying at a teacher-training college, she became a primary-school teacher. During this period, she created her own jewellery, which she sold at a stall on Portobello Road.
In 1962, she met Derek Westwood, a Hoover factory apprentice, in Harrow. They married on 21 July 1962; Westwood made her own wedding dress. In 1963, she gave birth to a son, Benjamin.
Westwood’s marriage to Derek ended after she met Malcolm McLaren. Westwood and McLaren moved into Thurleigh Court in Balham, where their son Joseph Corré was born in 1967. Westwood continued to teach until 1971 and also created clothes which McLaren designed. McLaren became manager of the punk band the Sex Pistols, and subsequently the two garnered attention as the band wore Westwood’s and McLaren’s designs.
Westwood was one of the architects of the punk fashion phenomenon of the 1970s, saying “I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way”. The store that she co-managed with McLaren, SEX, was a meeting place for early members of the London punk scene. Westwood also inspired the style of punk icons, such as Viv Albertine, who wrote in her memoir, “Vivienne and Malcolm use clothes to shock, irritate and provoke a reaction but also to inspire change. Mohair jumpers, knitted on big needles, so loosely that you can see all the way through them, T-shirts slashed and written on by hand, seams and labels on the outside, showing the construction of the piece; these attitudes are reflected in the music we make. It’s OK to not be perfect, to show the workings of your life and your mind in your songs and your clothes.”
Westwood’s designs were independent and represented a statement of her own values. She collaborated on occasions with Gary Ness, who assisted Westwood with inspirations and titles for her collections.
McLaren and Westwood’s first fashion collection to be shown to the media and potential international buyers was Pirate. Subsequently, their partnership, which was underlined by the fact that both their names appeared on all labelling, produced collections in Paris and London with the thematic titles Savages (shown late 1981), Buffalo/Nostalgia Of Mud (shown spring 1982), Punkature (shown late 1982), Witches (shown early 1983) and Worlds End 1984 (later renamed Hypnos, shown late 1983). After the partnership with McLaren was dissolved, Westwood showed one more collection under the Worlds End label: Clint Eastwood (late 1984–early 1985).
She dubbed the period 1981–85 “New Romantic” and 1988–91 as “The Pagan Years” during which “Vivienne’s heroes changed from punks and ragamuffins to Tatler girls wearing clothes that parodied the upper class”. From 1985 to 1987, Westwood took inspiration from the ballet Petrushka to design the mini-crini, an abbreviated version of the Victorian crinoline. Its mini-length, bouffant silhouette inspired the puffball skirts widely presented by more established designers such as Christian Lacroix. The mini-crini was described in 1989 as a combination of two conflicting ideals – the crinoline, representing a “mythology of restriction and encumbrance in woman’s dress”, and the miniskirt, representing an “equally dubious mythology of liberation”.
In 2007, Westwood was approached by the Chair of King’s College London, Patricia Rawlings, to design an academic gown for the college after it had successfully petitioned the Privy Council for the right to award degrees. In 2008, the Westwood-designed academic dresses for King’s College were unveiled. On the gowns, Westwood commented: “Through my reworking of the traditional robe I tried to link the past, the present and the future. We are what we know.”
In July 2011, Westwood’s collections were presented at The Brandery fashion show in Barcelona.
Westwood worked closely with Richard Branson to design uniforms for Virgin Atlantic crew. The uniform for the female crew consisted of a red suit, which accentuated the women’s curves and hips, and had strategically placed darts around the bust area. The men’s uniform consisted of a grey and burgundy three-piece suit with details on the lapels and pockets. Westwood and Branson were both passionate about using sustainable materials throughout their designs to reduce the impact on the environment and so used recycled polyester. Before fully launching the designs, the two released some for a trial period with pilots and cabin crew and made changes using the feedback they received.
In the 1992 Birthday Honours, Westwood was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to fashion design. She received her medal from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace; at the ceremony, Westwood wore nothing but sheer tights with reinforced bikini top under her skirt, which was later captured by a photographer in the courtyard of the Palace. Westwood later said, “I wished to show off my outfit by twirling the skirt. It did not occur to me that, as the photographers were practically on their knees, the result would be more glamorous than I expected,” and added: “I have heard that the picture amused the Queen.” Westwood advanced from OBE to Dame Commander of the same Order (DBE) in the 2006 New Year Honours “for services to British fashion”, and earned the award for British Designer of the Year on three occasions.
In 2007, Westwood was awarded a Fellowship at King’s College London and in 2008 she designed 20 new academic gowns and hoods for King’s students to wear at their graduation ceremonies. In 2008, Heriot-Watt University awarded Westwood an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters for her contribution to the industry and use of Scottish textiles.
In 2012, Westwood was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires. Also in 2012, Westwood was chosen as one of The New Elizabethans to mark the diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. A panel of seven academics, journalists and historians named Westwood among a group of 60 people in the UK “whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and given the age its character”. A tartan outfit designed by Westwood featured on a commemorative UK postage stamp issued by the Royal Mail in 2012 celebrating Great British Fashion.
In October 2014, the authorised biography Vivienne Westwood by Ian Kelly was published by Picador. Paul Gorman described it as “sloppy” and “riddled with inaccuracies” on the basis of multiple errors in the book including misspelling the names of popular rock stars “Jimmy” Hendrix and Pete “Townsend” and misidentifying the date of the Sex Pistols’ first concert and McLaren’s age when he died in 2010. Picador publisher Paul Baggaley told The Bookseller: “We always take very seriously any errors that are brought to our attention and, where appropriate, correct them.” A spokesman for Pan MacMillan, which published an Australian edition of the biography, confirmed that the matter was being handled by the publisher’s lawyers.
In January 2011, Westwood was featured in a Canadian-made television documentary called Vivienne Westwood’s London in which she takes the viewer through her favourite parts of London, including the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Wallace Collection, Whitechapel (accompanied by Sara Stockbridge), Hampton Court, the London Symphony Orchestra, Brixton Market and Electric Avenue, and the National Gallery.
In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, acquired a Tits t-shirt, designed by McLaren and sold at Seditionaries between 1976 and 1980.
In 2018, a documentary film about Westwood, called Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, premiered. The next year, Isabel Sanches Vegara wrote and Laura Callaghan illustrated Vivienne Westwood, one of the series, Little People, Big Dreams, published by Frances Lincoln Publishing.
Westwood had two children: Ben Westwood (born 1963), her son with Derek Westwood, is a photographer of erotica; Joseph Corré (born 1967), her son with Malcolm McLaren, is the founder of lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.
She married her former fashion student, Andreas Kronthaler, in 1992.
For 30 years, Westwood lived in an ex–council flat in Nightingale Lane, Clapham, until, in 2000, Kronthaler convinced her to move into a Queen Anne style house in Clapham, that was built in 1703, and which once belonged to the mother of Captain Cook. She was a keen gardener and a vegetarian.
To celebrate her 80th birthday, Westwood was commissioned by CIRCA, an art platform founded in 2020 by British-Irish artist Josef O’Connor, to present a new video work on the Piccadilly Lights screen in Piccadilly Circus, London. In the ten-minute film created with her brother, the punk icon performed a rewritten rendition of “Without You” from My Fair Lady to offer a stark warning of societal indifference to the looming environmental catastrophes, a cry against the arms trade, and its link to climate change: “I have a plan 2 save the World. Capitalism is a war economy + war is the biggest polluter, therefore Stop War + change economy 2 fair distribution of wealth at the same time: NO MANS LAND. Let’s be clear, U + I can’t stop war just like that. But we can stop arms production + that would halt climate change cc + financial Crash. Long term this will stop war”. In an interview with The Guardian, her husband Andreas Kronthaler was quoted as saying, “It was a beautiful day because for once she let herself enjoy it.”
Westwood died in Clapham, London, on 29 December 2022, at age 81.
Former Sex Pistols guitarist Glen Matlock paid tribute to Westwood on Twitter, stating that it was “a privilege to have rubbed shoulders with her in the mid ’70s at the birth of punk and the waves it created that still resound today for the disaffected.” Chrissie Hynde, singer and guitarist of The Pretenders, who had previously been employed as a shop assistant by Westwood and McLaren at SEX during the 1970s, tweeted: “Vivienne is gone and the world is already a less interesting place.” Others who paid tribute to Westwood on social media included singer Boy George, comedian Russell Brand, former Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson, pop band Bananarama, singer and multimedia artist Yoko Ono, singer Paul McCartney, and the fashion house Alexander McQueen.
Former co-leader of the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said of Westwood: “Such a legend, a huge inspiration, brilliantly creative and always a committed activist for people and planet – my thoughts are with her family and friends – RIP.”
Date of birth: 8th April 1941
Date of Death: 29th December 2022 (aged 81)
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivienne_Westwood