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Vivienne Westwood: Cultural Provocateur and True Original

Iseult de Mallet Burgess looks back on the life and work of the late icon, activist, and trailblazer Dame Vivienne Westwood.

When Vivienne Westwood was granted an OBE medal in 1992, she wore a sombre grey skirt suit to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Outside Buckingham Palace, she twirled for the photographers—sans underwear. The Queen was supposedly amused. 

The provocative mother of punk had little time for prudery or propriety. Westwood took the anti-establishment ethos of punk and allied it with haute couture, rewriting the rule book of fashion. While the designer may be remembered primarily for her sartorial ingenuity, she was also fiercely political, an enemy of convention, and a relentless climate activist. She was a rebel with a cause. 

From her early days of championing the punk look with then-partner Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols, Westwood knew that fashion could—must—be political. “I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way,” she said of the punk years. “ I realised there was no subversion without ideas. It’s not enough to want to destroy everything.”

Westwood and McLaren opened a scene-establishing boutique on King’s Road in 1971, which took on several lives, including rebranding as Sex in 1974 and as World’s End in 1979. It was a haunt of the bands she outfitted, a spiritual home for punk fashion, and a finger up at the establishment. The clothes were deliberately transgressive: bondage trousers, rubber skirts and safety pins mocked polite society. Westwood and McLaren designed the 1981 New Romantic-inspired Pirate collection, their entrée into high fashion, under the World’s End label before they parted ways. 

Westwood’s runways would continue to remix and invert historical references: crinoline re-cut as the ‘mini-crini’ took inspiration from 17th century style, corsets played with 18th century dress. She parodied British looks, reinventing materials such as tartan and Harris Tweed. Westwood relished the tension between conservative historical references and anarchic subversion. 

Her catwalk was also her political platform, though her activism extended beyond fashion. In 1989 she posed as Margaret Thatcher, whom she thought had done “real damage” to the world, for the cover of Tatler magazine over a caption that read: “This woman was once a punk.” Months after the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes in London, T-shirts from her spring/summer 2006 collection were emblazoned with the slogan “I Am Not A Terrorist, Please Don’t Arrest Me”, in a bid to challenge the government’s proposed anti-terror legislation. In the July 2008 issue of Dazed, she incited readers to “Get a Life!”, subvert the status quo, and think about rising sea levels. 

Westwood was intensely committed to the fight against climate change. She launched her campaign to address climate change issues, Climate Revolution, at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics; her autumn/winter 2015 show called for viewers to “VOTE GREEN”; placards at her spring/summer 2016 show penned the slogans “fracking is a crime” and “austerity is a crime”; she supported PETA, Oxfam, the Green Party, and rainforest charity Cool Earth. In 2015, she took the fracking debate to David Cameron—by driving an armoured vehicle to his house.  

Westwood was, in many ways, full of contradictions: a revolutionary honoured by the Queen, anti-consumerist despite her own business interests. Yet she did not turn away from the fact that fashion plays a huge role in the climate catastrophe. In fact, she was one of the first to raise her voice and demand that fashion do better.

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