With a little help from the Sex Pistols, anarchy-hungry British youth, and influences like the Teddy Boy subculture and fetishists, Vivienne Westwood helped punk evolve as a style, a morality, and a movement.
The British designer, who died this week at the age of 81, has become one of Britain’s most respected style icons. But before dressing up supermodels and making romantic corsets, she tore up fashion’s rulebook for a disillusioned new generation of difference-makers.
The punk style that made Westwood known in the 1970s grew out of his relationship with then-partner Malcolm McLaren. Westwood said years later that he didn’t want to be a designer, but made clothes out of necessity in his youth and when asked to equip the new band, the Sex Pistols, which McLaren led.
Their relationship was troubled—Westwood would later accuse McLaren of harassment—but they eventually formed one of the most influential (and short-lived) bands in music, and a style often copied.
Westwood (right) with then-partner Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Credit: Bill Kennedy/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
The history of the Sex Pistols is intertwined with Westwood’s King’s Road boutique, which was then called SEX. He sold Westwood’s handmade festive clothing and employed burgeoning fashion iconoclasts like Jordan and musicians like Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. This is where Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and his friends hang out and audition for the band’s lead singer, a green-haired punk named John Lydon, known to many as Johnny Rotten.
Westwood and McLaren’s views influenced Pistols’ writing, and Westwood designed clothing that reflected the group’s anarchist sensibilities. When the Sex Pistols single “God Save the Queen” was banned from British radio, Westwood renamed his shop Seditionaries and his band became Queen II. T-shirt with swastika and Jesus on the cross on the reverse.
Pamela Rooke, known as Jordan, and Simon Barker, known as Six, models Westwood’s “God Bless the Queen” t-shirts. Both were supporters of the Sex Pistols, and Jordan worked at Westwood’s boutique. Credit: Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Westwood’s attire from this period was deliberately compulsive and abrasive, made to comment on conservative ideals and a lack of social progress. She was influenced by the bondage-dominated S&M subculture of the leather-clad bikers and poster girls of the 1950s, with gear and a DIY creation (safety pins, zippers, haphazard hems) combined with traditional fabrics like plaid.
She said Westwood wanted to encourage young punks to political action and believed her outfits represented her own radical views of the ’70s. He said the purpose of his designs was to “face the status quo” and encourage others to do the same. Dressing like a bum, he said, “You’re basically insulting yourself, but you’re also purging yourself of all selfishness.”
Sid Vicious (left) with Westwood at a late ’70s Sex Pistols concert. Credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images
But when the mainstream took over Westwood’s punk designs, many didn’t care about punk’s radical political underpinnings. The Sex Pistols disbanded before the decade was up, and Sid Vicious, who was released on bail after being accused of murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, died of an overdose at the age of 21 – the punk had lost its gritty shine.
In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, Westwood took a more jaded take on the style he helped birth: “The punk movement … was a fashion that became a marketing opportunity for people,” he said.
Westwood traded punk for high fashion
Frustrated, Westwood founded his eponymous line and left McLaren. The new style inspiration was 18th-century-inspired corsets and voluminous skirts, and history mocking the bourgeoisie.
Vivienne Westwood at Buckingham Palace after receiving her OBE from the Queen in 1992. Browse the gallery to see more about his life and career. Credit: Martin Keene/PA Pictures/Getty Images
Westwood has become one of Britain’s most famous designers, beloved by the mainstream industry he once wanted to repel. Westwood, who once used the Queen’s face as a symbol of social decay, described the monarch as an “entity” to British society in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning in 2013, and was named Dame Commander of the British Empire. The emblem of his line is even an orb inspired by the Sovereign Orb of the British Crown Jewels.
But as she aged, she became a committed activist beyond fashion, although she continued to use her line as a platform for her views. In 1989, she impersonated Margaret Thatcher, who opposes outreach programs on a magazine cover. She has long argued against consumerism and urged fans of her outfits to buy less and invest in long-lasting pieces. She took her fur off her line and created vegan handbags.
Contemporary designers are still inspired by the punk scene Westwood helped shape, capitalizing on the “distressed” look and using plaid and safety pins. And many of today’s punks – in addition to following a particular aesthetic – have embraced goals Westwood wanted to acknowledge in his work, including anti-authoritarianism, anti-racism, and support for LGBTQ people.
But as for style masters who exemplify punk looks without relating to the movement that gave birth to it, Westwood was not at all convinced that they were true punks.
Original punk Westwood in his boutique called Seditionaries. Credit: Elisa Leonelli/Shutterstock
“It went into the iconography of ‘I am a rebel and this is how I look if I want to be that kind of rebel,'” he told the Guardian. “But for someone my age to think he has any credibility – no, it didn’t.”