There are few figures to emerge in the last 50 years who have had as definitive an impact on culture as Dame Vivienne Westwood. Her work is concrete proof of the undeniable and perpetual power of counterculture in society. Not only did her work create punk fashion, but it also helped to propagate the punk movement as a whole.
From her shop on the King’s Road, she and her former partner Malcolm McClaren spearheaded the movement for social change. “Punk was about how we don’t accept everything that’s going on in the world, we don’t accept your values and your taboos. Punk was really about trying to change the world, and to get young people involved.”
Most people approaching their 74th birthday in April would take a more relaxed approach to life. However, activism is in Westwood’s blood. It is a bone in her body which is integral to her functionality, grown in the womb and springing into action when she was a child. Like the characters of a medieval morality play, Westwood is Activism personified. Far from being initiated solely by the events around her in the 1970s, her desire to change the world for the better came about at the age of four, in a revelatory moment that evidenced the power of art on the individual.
“My activism, my idea of trying to prevent suffering, making a better world, it began when I was very young. I always feel a bit embarrassed about telling this, but I saw a photograph of a painting of a crucifixion on a calendar when I was four. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen anything like it before. It shocked me so much and since then it kind of defined who I was.
“I really thought something should be done against everything terrible. So I’ve always been trying to find what I can do. I was always on a crusade to make the world better. I don’t want to say fashion can change the world at all – but sometimes I thought maybe it could have an effect.”
In her fashion career, Westwood has styled an endless list of names of the great and the good, from the flawlessly shocking Sex Pistols to the Duchess of Cornwall.
Yet, it is a career that almost never was. After punk, she faced a crisis of faith in the fashion industry and its buyers. “Certainly, the punk way of dressing signifies ‘I’m a rebel’. That’s what we were trying to do. Then at the end of punk, when I stopped being so interested in it, I realised these young kids were not that interested in it, but just wanted a good time.”
Although advocating change, there was a difference in interests between designer and consumer. “The Sex Pistols had failed and I wanted to know what my perspective was from then on. And so at that point I had to decide whether I wanted to continue in fashion. And I said to Malcolm McClaren, ‘Either I help you in the music business, or you help me in the field of fashion, as we can’t do both. The Sex Pistols had collapsed in disaster. His reply was, ‘Fashion every time’. But as soon as he’d said that, he was off doing Bow Wow Wow. So I continued anyway. And there were reasons why I continued, mostly because I realised I was very talented and I thought I should continue for that reason. I was being copied all over the place. So I went into something completely different – I decided I was going to be a fashion designer and to research history and see where I’m going to get some different inspiration from.”
The powerful sentiment of Westwood’s activism has remained with her constantly, since her St Augustine-like conversion experience as a child.
However, her later influences underwent dramatic changes – they did not take the form of a stylised picture of Christ. Rather, Westwood emphasises the infinite importance of culture. To be able to understand ourselves, we must first understand the world in which we live. “At the time of the Buffalo collection, I had already met the man who influenced me more than anyone in my life, and that was my friend Gary. He was the one who properly introduced me to the importance of culture, the importance of the past, of having a perspective on the world we live in and understanding things.
“And I still say this today, that you can’t have a view on the world, things don’t start from you – you’re just inheriting a whole tradition of different views of the world that changes all the time. But you need to know something about that to have your own view. Culture is terribly important, and Gary influenced me incredibly. I would not be the person I am without his advice.
“A little bit later, I met my Italian manager, Carlo. He realised I was on a little bit of a crusade about fashion. I’d just done the Buffalo/Nostalgia of Mud collection [in 1982], and he was really into second hand cars.
“He said to me ‘You think you can fight the system. Imagine the system is a car going 100 miles an hour and you think you can stop it. And you think you can throw some rocks at it. You won’t stop it, it’ll just go faster with your energy. What you need to do is to go 200 miles an hour.’ So I stopped hanging on the idea of banging on the door of the establishment, well kicking on the door, and I just started to propose my own ideas.”
Westwood’s current ideas and activism are heavily focused upon environmental politics. Despite being a supporter of the Labour Party for many years, her own views have undergone a shift in light of the ever-increasing threat to the world we live, caused through our own mismanagement.
“I’m interested â€¨in voting Green.â€¨People don’tâ€¨have an un-â€¨derstand-â€¨ing of howâ€¨revolution-â€¨ary the Greenâ€¨Party really are.â€¨There is a miscon-â€¨ception of what Greenâ€¨really is. That’s what as-â€¨tonished me. When I read allâ€¨their policies comprehensively,â€¨I thought ‘I couldn’t have written this better myself.’ They’ve got it all sorted as to what they should be doing.
“We live under a capitalist system, and the way to destroy that flawed system is to implement Green policy. To be against austerity and smashing up communities, selling their land to speculators for short term benefits. And so I think that you must not kick the door down, but instead you have to get the answer, the solution, working. We will defeat the capitalist system by trying to implement the things that will change everything anyway.”
As always, Westwood is not one simply to be content letting change come to her through the work of others. Alongside participating in numerous protests to increase awareness of environmental perils such as fracking, she is working with the Green Party to improve their presence in society, in the media and to highlight the need for young people to vote. Her political legwork is highly impressive. “I said ‘You’ve got to make your message much better, suggesting ‘We are the Revolution?’
They enthusiastically replied, ‘That’s great!’â€¨“I am really interested in this, particularly in young people who don’t vote. Because if you could get young people who don’t vote at the moment to vote for the Green Party, which is the only party worth voting for, it would make an incredible impact. Because the UK is so important in the world, it’s got so much credibility on the international stage.â€¨“If something happened, it would send shock waves throughout the world. And so it’s not even a question of getting more Green MPs. If you could have a 20 per cent vote at the next election, or 25 per cent, that would be so shocking that things would have to change.”â€¨What is perhaps more surprising to those familiar with her anti-establishment associations is her recently discovered admiration of Prince Charles. In the past, she has fashioned varying garments emblazoned with Jamie Reid’s now infamous defaced image of the Queen. Now, the Duchess of Cornwall is one of her clients. Perhaps the change of heart is a reflection of the progress made by the monarchy since the 1970s?
“No, no, no, I don’t think so. I don’t know why they are more popular than they used to be – that’s not to do with me! Or my attitudes towards them. Yes, at one time I was anti-royalist. But I think when you start thinking things out, the idea of a parliament, they are all the same. It’s not like we’ve got any democracy; removing the monarchy wouldn’t make our system any more democratic. I think Prince Charles has done more good than any politician ever has, at least in my lifetime for sure.
“He’s just really brilliant. The Queen keeps aloof. David Cameron said she was terribly relieved when Scotland voted against independence. So we don’t really know what she thinks.
“But apart from that, I think the idea of a monarchy as social cement is really good. It helps people nationwide, patriotically. It gives them an identity, a sense of unity.”
It could be said that Westwood’s topics of interest have changed since she first burst onto the London cultural circuit. But then, so has the world in which she lives. Her work as an activist for both individuals and groups is hugely commendable.
She uses her powerful voice to advocate change with a view to improving the world in which we live. To summarise her work in a simple sentence does not do either her or her causes justice. But her passionate commitment to these causes is an inspiration to us all.