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Dame Vivienne Westwood: highlights of the British icon's six-decade career

Lauretta Roberts
30 December 2022

Dame Vivienne Westwood, who died yesterday at the age of 81, was Britain's first true superstar fashion designer, known the world over for her iconic looks from punks to pirates, mini crisis, corsets, tweeds and tartan, all rendered in her unique and unmistakable style.

Her persona was anything but starry, however, and she was known for travelling around London on her bicycle and her gritty political and environmental activism but, then again, would often be seen at her local branch of Sainsbury's in an immaculate tweed suit, pussy bow blouse and pearls. She was a truly unique character and very hard to pin down. On the one hand she was an iconoclast but on the other she was happy to be inducted into the higher echelons of the establishment by accepting an OBE (albeit with no underwear on) in 1992 and a DBE in 2006.

Many would say her designs were avant garde and, in many cases, unwearable (certainly Naomi Campbell struggled with her vertiginous shoes falling flat on her backside while wearing a pair during a catwalk show in 1993) and yet women from all walks, all sizes and all ages swore by her clothing saying she knew how to flatter the female form and give them confidence. Her bridal wear, for example, was a smash hit, made all the more famous for its appearance in the Sex & The City movie in 2008 when Carrie Bradshaw was jilted by Mr Big while wearing a voluminous ivory gown.

Dame Vivienne is one of only a handful of British designers to have created a global brand under her own name (along with Sir Paul Smith, Stella McCartney and the late Alexander McQueen) and was a true Great Briton. Even those with only a passing interest in fashion knew who she was. Her own image was as famous as her designs, which often subverted British iconography and heritage, but which also sought to support British industry, such as Scottish tweed and tartan makers.

In the latter stages of her career, Westwood dedicated her time and energy to promoting a new vision for fashion, which we now call conscious consumption (once again, she was ahead of her time) and drawing attention to environmental issues. It is perhaps no surprise that one of the first people to issue a statement following her passing was former co-leader of the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas who said of Dame Vivienne: "Such a legend, a huge inspiration, brilliantly creative and always a committed activist for people and planet."

Here are some of the highlights from a remarkable six-decade long career in fashion.

Vivienne Westwood

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood outside Bow Street Magistrate Court, after he was remanded on bail for fighting in June 1977. Image: Alamy


Along with music impresario Malcolm McLaren, Westwood is credited with creating the Punk movement, characterised by its anti-establishment spirit and DIY aesthetic. McLaren and Westwood opened the SEX shop on London's King's Road (it was later renamed Seditionaries and World's End) and it became a magnet for disenchanted youth and creatives and inspired the name of McLaren's seminal punk band The Sex Pistols. Inside-out, ripped t-shirts with provocative messaging (often hand written) held together with safety pins, bondage trousers, loosely knitted mohair jumpers and deconstructed kilts were among some of the most popular items. And, while fashion has moved on, these styles remain influential to this day and modern takes still appear in luxury and mainstream fashion collections.

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood picture in her studio on 28 April 1983. Image: Alamy


Having moved on from Punk, McLaren and Westwood went on to spearhead another influential style movement, which she dubbed the New Romantics drawing on influences such as dandies and highwaymen and which was typified by the looks of major bands of the day from Adam and the Ants to Culture Club. Under the World's End label, Westwood and McLaren presented the Pirate collection in 1981, which has gone down in history (its boots and wavy print designs are among the most coveted vintage pieces to this day) and was one of the first catwalk shows to form part of the pre-cursor to London Fashion Week at London Olympia. Other iconic shows from the decade include Savages, Witches and Buffalo: Nostalgia of Mud (the Buffalo hat from this 1983 collection is a favourite of contemporary music artist Pharrell Williams). Eventually the influence of McLaren waned Westwood began to consider herself a designer in her own right. In the latter half of the 1980s she drew on influences from "Tatler" girls and the ballet and her signature tweed suits and iconic mini-crini designs made their first appearances.

Vivienne Westwood in Scotland in 1990. Image: Alamy


This was the decade when the Westwood brand went truly global and she began to receive mainstream recognition receiving the award for Womenswear Designer of the Year award from the British Fashion Council in both 1990 and 1991 and the OBE (wearing sheer tights and no underwear) in 1992. Her signature corsets, which drew inspiration from Tudor undergarments, first made an appearance at the start of this decade and remain worn to this day. In 1993, her iconic Anglomania collection, celebrating Scottish tartans, was shown and the name was later to be applied to her brand's diffusion line. Westwood declared herself to be somewhat disenchanted during the 1990s despairing of the 'ugly casualness' of the grunge-inspired clothing of the era and it was during this decade that she created some of her most beautiful couture gowns, in particular the inspired by garments in paintings by French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau in 1996.

Vivienne Westwood stands in front of an image of model Sarah Stockbridge at the launch of a retrospective of her work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, 30 March 2004. Image: Alamy


The business dealings of Vivienne Westwood are best left to another time. Suffice to say they were complex. But what was clear was that by this time, she had created a truly global business with mainstream appeal and separate lines for high end fashion (Gold), mainline (Red) and diffusion (Anglomania) along with highly popular knitwear, accessories, bridalwear and perfume. She was also given the honour of a major retrospective of her work at the V&A in 2004 and in 2008 one of the greatest fictional fashion icons of the era, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex & The City, opted to wear Vivienne Westwood marriage to Mr Big in the TV show's first movie. She was jilted but at least she looked stunning and the dress is expected to make a return in the next series of the 2020s re-boot of SATC, And Just Like That. In 2006, Vivienne Westwood officially became Dame Vivienne Westwood having been awarded the DBE for services to British fashion.

Vivienne Westwood

Dame Vivienne Westwood and her son Joe Corre stage an anti-fracking protest at Downing Street, London on 5 June 2018. Image: Alamy


During this era, Dame Vivienne became more and more involved in environmental and political activism, staging an anti-fracking protest outside Downing Street in 2018, along with her son Joe Corre for example. In what seemed like another contradiction for the head of a global fashion brand, she spent much of her time preaching the merits of buying less clothing and wearing it for longer. Every the trailblazer this message has now reached the mainstream, with even fast fashion retailers offering rental and resale services to extend the life of their clothing. During this decade Westwood also cemented another great personal and creative partnership with husband, Andreas Kronthaler, to whom she handed over creative control of her Gold label in 2016.

Dame Vivienne Westwood smears cake on her face as she attends a picnic protest marking Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's 50th Birthday, on Parliament Square in London, 3 July 2021. Image: Alamy


In a statement announcing her passing on 29 December 2022, the Vivienne Westwood company said: "Vivienne continued to do the things she loved, up until the last moment, designing, working on her art, writing her book, and changing the world for the better." She was agitating, protesting and creating until the very end and it's hard to image British fashion without her. It's a cliché (something Westwood never was), but it is nonetheless true however, that while she is no longer with us, her spirit and designs will continue to influence for generations to come.

Main image: Vivienne Westwood pictured outside her studio in 1992.

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