Design history of Vivienne Westwood

Sparking a Product Design Revolution with Vivienne Westwood

How to Think Outside the New Product Design Box

Vivienne Westwood is one of the most successful British designers of the 21st century. While many of her contemporaries view her as a fashion designer, she is first and foremost an alternative artist. Her early start as the “godmother of punk” and her constant questioning of established norms affirms this counterculture first positioning.

Design history of Vivienne Westwood

The art world loves the obscure and weird, they love finding the new next best thing. But for all its love for collecting the rare and unusual fashion never seems to be held to the same level as a painting or object. There tends to be two distinct design paths a designer can take, either as a fashion designer who makes functional clothing or as an artist producing work that interacts or references the human body.

Finding the Middle Ground in Design and Art

I was once criticized in a sculpture class based around the body for making something that was too wearable and therefore not considered art.  But there is a middle ground. Wearable fashion design that any person can buy in a store which can be considered art. Because of the thought and design process such works can be considered alternative as well.  Not couture clothing created by an old French fashion house like Dior, because while couture garments are beautiful works of art, they are created for the sole purpose of consumption without meaning or intent behind the piece or collection.  Vivienne Westwood, however, is a designer whose work is not just innovative, but thought provoking.  However, because she designs fashion for everyday use she is discounted as just being a fashion designer and not an artist.

In an article by Nancy Haynes she uses Westwood as the benchmark of when an object has become too wearable and therefor no longer art, in an article about artist Yinka Shonibare by saying,

He (Shonibare) has long been intrigued by surrealism, particularly the surrealist approach to objects.  Some of his early direct nods to surrealist objects didn’t quite work.  Cha Cha Cha (1997), a pair of women’s shoes covered in African-print fabric and lined with luxurious yellow velvet, which refers to the famous Ma government (1936), seemed more Vivienne Westwood then Meret Oppenheim.[i]

Referring to Oppenheim’s My Nurse Shoes, of two upside down beaded shoes positioned and tied up to look like meat on a platter.  But Vivienne’s work is more than just mass produced fashion with a little bit of backstory thrown in, it is always innovative, thought provoking and she is never afraid to completely abandon a signature style once she feels it has become too commercial.     

Discovering a Passion for Design and Fashion

Vivienne Westwood had a relatively normal upbringing born in Glossop, England in 1941 her mother was a cotton weaver and her father a shoemaker.  A lover of fashion from a young age she was greatly influenced by the introduction the Dior’s new look in 1947[ii].  Brought on by the shortage of fabric after the war the “New Look” was considered to be quite ugly and vulgar by many women because of its tight-fitting skirts and jackets.

“It’s been forgotten how radical and anarchic Dior was.  With the cut and structure of the New Look, for example he changed the relationship of clothes to the body.”  Vivienne Westwood[iii]

This reinvention of a whole new look, created with nothing more than what was available at the time, is something that stuck with her.  At just 16 she left school and started at Harrows School of Art in London for fashion.  However, she left after just a year saying a working-class girl like her could never make it in the art world.  In 1962, she was working as a primary school teacher when she married her first husband Derek Westwood.  They had one child together before separating.[iv]

It was when she met art student Malcolm McLaren that things really changed for Westwood.

Always a bit of a rebel Malcolm encouraged her to visit gallery’s, question authority and to see how those elements interacted with fashion.  They started their journey into the fashion world first by selling used clothing out of the back of a store called Paradise Garage on 430 kings road.  In 1971 McLaren and Westwood took over and renamed the store Let it Rock and sold old 50’s records and vintage clothes inspired by the idea of kids running wild in the 50’s, the James Dean, aesthetic of rock and roll.[v]  Their store was in stark contrast to the rest of the boutiques in the area that sold Hippie clothing and crafts.  The Pair had a great dislike for the hippie movement which despite shearing many of the same antiestablishment ideals; they felt the hippie movement was a manufactured lifestyle controlled by an older generation of marketing companies.[vi]  So they set out to create clothing that was the opposite of the louse flowing psychedelic skirts and shirts of the hippies.

“We wanted to tighten all that up, pull it in, stop all that hippie smirking, be direct and stern.”[vii]

Her love of re-appropriating old garments, which is a defining feature of her current work, started in these early days.  This included the Teddy Boy look, a favorite of the wild children of the 50’s, a look that harkened back to the Edwardian dandy boys.  They mixed the 50’s quaffed hair with Edwardian style jackets and a refusal to conform.  Westwood started selling used and altered clothes from Let it Rock, then she took this look further by making the teddy boy favorite drain pipe pants in sparkly Lurex fabrics.[viii]  Westwood and McLaren understood the importance of branding very early on in their careers.  In the first incarnation of the 430 Kings Rd shop they dressed it up to look like a 50’s lower middle class living room harkening back to the time the teddy boys were influenced by.  Westwood once described it by saying, “It wasn’t quite a shop and it wasn’t quite art but something in between.” Vivienne Westwood[ix] By finding a niche market Westwood and McLaren could develop a cult fallowing, a group of people who wanted to subvert the current cultural scene.  Every time they felt that the style they had created was becoming two mainstream or not edgy enough they altered and reinvented their image.

Taking the Next Steps in a Budding Design Career

Soon they renamed the store Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die.[x]  They moved from The Edwardian Teddy boy aesthetic to an overtly open biker, which was the beginning of the punk movement.  During this time, Westwood started making t-shirts.  She ripped, tore, knotted and stitched shirts and then embellished them with feathers, beads, zippers, and found objects like bike tires.

Using words like Venus, rock, and even perv, these affordable shirts gained a huge success among the emerging punk scene of the time.  One of the most memorable shirts she made was a black shirt with Rock spelled out in boiled chicken bones.  Each one of these shirts stands alone a not only a garment but an object that speaks quite clearly to her dislike of the common and practical.  Taking an article of clothing that was so basic and turning into a symbol of rebellion.  These early works lack the technical tailoring of her later collections but they were still created with thought and intention.

“We started to put zips in odd places, where they shouldn’t logically be.  We thought about the construction of clothes.  What was a zip for anyways? Was it really just a functional thing? After all there were all sorts of other trendy associations to do with zips.”[xi]  She would sew zippers right over the chest on t-shirts, making the viewer wonder if a zipper is just for function and the unzip is to expose the chest does that change the context of the shirt.  The zipper placement removes the shirt from everyday necessity to have a very specific intention and purpose.  This experimentation led Westwood and McLuren into a little known and little explored world.

Now, the store became more than just a shop to purchase clothing from it was a home base for the outsider to come and be inspired.  Westwood described it as if she was back teaching again “I felt I was coaching them, leading them away from common sense and stupid assumptions about morality, and what was normal and acceptable.” [xii]   The store at the time was quite like what Group Material was trying to do in the 1980’s.

The idea of questioning culture, questioning what is alternative and trying to bring together a group of people to explore these new ideas.[xiii]

Unlike Group Material who set out to bring together a community that they transplanted themselves into, to try and explore their Ideas, Westwood could naturally bring together a community.  It was not a physical geological community but a community of like-minded people who were drawn together at the store.

In 1975, she did a line of printed t-shirts with beading and images on them. One of the t-shirts had two cowboys talking face to face, with no pants on. The shirts contain elaborate turquoise beadwork and unique design. A man was arrested while wearing one because an old woman complained about the imagery on the shirt.  This prompted the British Government to prosecute them under the obscenity laws for exposing the public to lewd images.[xiv]   Westwood’s goal was to bring human nature out into the open to demystify the taboo.  A subject many artists explore, male, female gay and straight, the intellectual artist is always searching for a way to force the viewer to confront their views about design. Westwood did this by taking the subject out of the gallery setting and into the view of the common man.

The viewer who objects the explicit content can decide to not observe the images by simply not entering the gallery.

For example, if a man objects to the content of Mapplethorpe’s photographs all he really must do to avoid seeing them is not enter the gallery. With Westwood’s racy shirts that same viewer is forcibly exposed to the content when they see it on a shirt in public, taking away to control from the viewer. Instead of backing down to the government pressure the duo decided to rebrand again and promptly renamed the store.

Controversy and Reinvention

One of the printed shirts that made a very strong point had “you’re gonna wake up one morning and know what side of the bed you have been lying on”. The statement was printed across the top fallowed by a list of all the things that Westwood detested on one side and a list of things on the other side that gave her hope for the future.  Scrawled behind the text in handwritten faded lettering the word scum.  The list of dislikes included political figures, Artists, fashion magazines, dirty books that aren’t all that dirty, THE ARTS COUNCIL, the job you hate but are too scared to pack in and many more.  The list of likes included Feminists, a model whose affair took down a politician, BRAZIL, zootsuits and dreadlocks, imagination and coffee bars that sell whisky under the counter.

The shirt is funny yet thought provoking, making the viewer question what side of the metaphorical bed are they on and if they really are happy. It works as a new product marketing strategy and stands well on its own. Posing the question, “who is scum?” Is it the man who never questions anything scum for not working to change the world for the better? Or is it the revolutionary who is scene a scum for trying to question authority?

The imagery created by the words and the composition on the shirt could easily be printed on paper, framed and hung in a gallery but her choice to express her message on the body brings a multidimensional aspect to it which would have been lost on paper.

We see images on shirts every day, logos, bands, funny statements none of which I consider art.

What make these shirts more than just garments are all the contributing factors that culminated in their creation.  There was movement of young people, a questioning of authority and a never ceasing desire to expose people to another way of life.  The text was more than just decoration it was a moving manifesto for an alternative way of thinking.

Meanwhile McLaren was busy breaking into the music business as a band manager, which soon led to one of her most notable collaborations.  McLaren started managing a band of young men who would hang around the store.  McLaren took them on under the condition that they changed the band name from Swankers to The Sex Pistols.[xv]

“Some people still think the punk things was an eruption off the streets.  Something about dolce-queue rock, or working class youngsters making a protest.  But it was a fashion event right from the start.  We paid enormous attention to detail.  Malcolm and I dreamed up ideas and then I worked away to give them a focus as clothing.  Then Malcolm would come in with a final twist to turn the idea on its head to make it count.   All our images and slogans and clothes were so meticulously crafted and every nuance was a deliberate choice.”[xvi] Vivienne Westwood

The pair had created the ultimate performance piece, with the Sex Pistols as the body’s, dressed in Vienne Westwood’s clothes.  Then McLaren and Westwood would provoke the drunk and often drugged band all to bring attention to the wild and out of control life they believed in.

The Allure of Rebellion

Vivienne Westwood’s early work was about seeing how far she could push things, showing off the, “We don’t give a damn” attitude of the punk movement.  Soon, like most trends, the punk movement was becoming mainstream.  Designers were mass-producing punk garments and music labels were signing anyone with Green hair.[xvii] So just like before she rebranded, this time calling the store Seditionaries a word she made up to suggest you needed to seduce people to revolt.  In 1976 Westwood redesigned to store to look like it could have been an art instillation on the commentary of war.

With a cold and clinical feel the store featured a blown up image of the German city of Dresden which had been leveled during the war and on the opposite wall an upside down image of Piccadilly Circus with holes punched in the walls to look like it had been bombed.[xviii]  Clearly drawing from their time in art school, the store decoration alone could have easily been put in a gallery as an installation on the effects of past war and the current relabeling that was going on with the punk movement.  Add in the props and rubber wear for the office Westwood was making at the time, the store seemed to speak quite clearly to the allure of rebellion.

As time passed Westwood said she started gravitating towards fashion because it alienated her existing clients who had become predictable and boring.  In the end, she concluded that punks who set out to scare the common man, really didn’t do anything.  At that point, she said she lost interest in the movement.[xix]  This is the turning point in her work where she stopped making work to incite a rebellion and started making fashion with a purpose.

With a love for 18th century garments, she studied patterns at the Victoria and Albert museum.  While many designers reference back to historical garments for inspiration on collections they tend to try, and look at the past and find out how to make it modern.  Look back at any Major couture designer and you will find entire collections influenced by the past.  Jean Paul 2007 Gaultier’s spring collection is a good example of a designer taking the past and turning into modern fashion.  His models graced the runway in long gowns and halos looking like strutting Virgin Mary’s.

The collection clearly was influenced by religious iconography, from day of the dead to stain glass church windows.  Dresses that were styled to look like the cloaks women were painted wearing in Italian renascence religious painting.  John Galliano’s fall 2006 couture show was a parade of Joan of Arc warrior women.  While the collection is a visual candy store for your eyes, the medieval concept is repurposed onto modern shapes.  Westwood however took the opposite approach.  She studied old patterns and worked at creating a collection from old shapes and silhouettes that felt new and fresh through fabrics and styling.

Designing the First Significant Product Collection

Rejuvenated with new ideas and a new direction to take her work, Westwood’s first real collection was in 1981 and it was pirate themed.  A fitting concept, pirates were rebels of the sea out to explore new territory just like Westwood was doing.  She was a fashion rebel embarking on a journey into the world of fashion.  A role she still plays today.  Piracy was also a hot topic in the music industry at the time, as pirating music was becoming a problem.  So once again the shop was renamed Worlds End and done up to look like the inside of an old ship.

The Pirate collection was something completely new, the clothes were based on 500-year-old patterns, many of which were what were considered lewd in that time.  It became a new romantic look of oversized unisex clothing.  On the runway and in the documented images she did at the time, she adorned the models with Walkmans – or vintage headphones – as a commentary about pirating music.[xx] Westwood also used gold foil rappers to cover the models’ teeth and painted the exposed nipples gold. McLaren played rap music from a new band he was managing Bow Wow Wow during the Show.  The band even whore the pirate clothes in their music video for C30 C60 C90.

This new aesthetic was a game changer for Westwood it catapulted her from an alternative shop owner to a respected fashion designer.

Gone now are the days of in your face trends like the inappropriate t-shirts and rubber clothing.  She now started to explore the subtleties of what makes something alluring and how that interacts with a women’s body.

“Nowadays I am even more fascinated by the relationship of the body to clothing.  This underlies all my design, and I can’t stress enough how important it is in general.  Self-awareness about the body separates good from mediocre design”.[xxi] 

            In her third collection, titled Buffalo (Nostalgia of Mud) Fall 1983, a collection that explored a primitive third world look.  Woodcut prints on knit dresses with large petty layered skirts and exposed undergarments over asymmetrical cut pieces.  In the programs at her fashion show she asked the readers to “Take your mothers old brassiere and wear it undisguised over your school jumper and have a muddy face”.[xxii]  Influenced by Peruvian women who considered owning a bra a status symbol, they would wear them on the outside of their clothes.

In idea later used by Galliano when he created Madonna’s infamous cone bra.  What was so innovative about this collection were that the shapes the garments created were not formed by seams but by the body walking under the clothes.  This meant that to truly see the beauty of the clothes you had to see them in motion or feel them move on your own body.

Bringing Great Design from Mind to Market

Her new collections are a constant conversation between the body and the garment.  She often execrates or highlights a part of the body.  Exchanged busts, small waists and enlarged hips.  Her Collections from the 80’s to present show how with age she has only refined what a true rebel is.  Endlessly cheeky, often subtle or not so subtly political, her work is ever changing.  For the purpose of looking at Westwood as an artist, her shoe designs are particularly interesting.  As objects, they have just as much depth and conversation as Meret Oppenheim’s My Nurse Shoes.  Oppenheim’s shoes a commentary on how women are often viewed are objects in the male dominated world of art.  Many women artist have approached the subject of male domination, Westwood however worked to take charge of the male gaze, not by being blatantly and overtly vivacious like in her early work but in a subtle way that gives women to take back the power of their emotions.

I think this is where may people tend to discredit Westwood as an artist because it would be easy to look at a pair of her shoes and only see them just an accessory not see the underlying concept.  For instance Westwood just like Oppenheim made a pair of nurse’s shoes (Lace up Nurse Spoons: Erotic zones).[xxiii]  Westwood’s take on the nurses shoe takes the classic British nurses or governess shoe and places it on a 6-inch stiletto.  Looking at this shoe today it is hard to see anything remotely attractive about them; they look like just another patent oxford heel.  During the 1990’s however Westwood was bringing new heights literally to heels.  Adding this height was a reference to S&M bondage shoes.  This could be read a few ways either she was allowing the wearer, of these traditionally stern and proper shoes to express confidence.  Or showing how women are often, because of their gender, put into domestic roles like childrearing and caretaking.

“We got criticism from feminists who said our designs were degrading to women.  They never thought that in fact women might feel in control through these clothes and accessories, that they might be empowered.”  Vivienne Westwood[xxiv]

If Nancy Haynes had taken a moment to look past Westwood’s commercial front as a fashion designer and looked at the depth that a seemingly basic shoe of Westwood’s can have, Haynes might have realized that an object displayed as its intended purpose can be just as strong as one displayed right there on a platter.

Westwood shows that you don’t need to create a traditional work of art to start a conversation about, love, gender, revolution or culture.  She uses clothing to express her interests, concerns and the conversations she was having and then releases that article of clothing to someone else to continue the conversation in their own way.

Works Cited

Wilcox, Claire.Westwood, Vivienne,Vivienne Westwood. London : V&A Publications, 2004. Print.

Krell, Gene. Vivienne Westwood. New York : Universe/Vendome, 1997. Print.

Vermorel, Fred. Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, And The Sixties Laid Bare. Woodstock, N.Y. :

Overlook Press, 1996. Print.

Beatrice, Luca,Guarnaccia, Matteo., eds. Vivienne Westwood: Shoes. Bologna : Damiani Editore, 2006. Print.

Haynes, Nancy: Picton,John.  Yinka Shonibare: Re-dressing History.  Berkeley, CA: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center.

Felshin, Nina., eds. But Is It Art?: The Spirit Of Art As Activism. Group Material Timeline. Seattle : Bay Press, 1995. Print.


[i] Yinka Shonibare pg 63

[ii] Vivienne Westwood by Clair Wilcox pg 9

[iii] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare Pg 98

[iv] Vivienne Westwood by Clair Wilcox pg 10

[v] Vivienne Westwood by Gene Krell pg 10

[vi] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare Pg

[vii] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare Pg 58

[viii] Vivienne Westwood by Gene Krell pg 11

[ix] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare Pg 58

[x] Vivienne Westwood by Gene Krell pg 11

[xi] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare Pg62

[xii] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare Pg65

[xiii] Group Material Timeline pg 2

[xiv] Vivienne Westwood by Clair Wilcox pg 12

[xv] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg 69

[xvi] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg 75

[xvii] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg 20

[xviii] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg 81

[xix] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg80

[xx] Vivienne Westwood by Clair Wilcox pg 16

[xxi] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg22

[xxii] Vivienne Westwood by Clair Wilcox pg 18

[xxiii] Vivienne Westwood: Shoes pg 9

[xxiv] Fashion Perversity and the sixties laid bare.  Pg63