I wish I could say that this jacket is a Vivienne Westwood – it’s not, but I connect red tartan indelibly with her designs. The history of Vivienne Westwood’s career and life is as well known and worn as one of her coveted blazers or dresses. It invariably starts with her relationship with Malcolm McLaren, and the shop they opened on King’s Road as the punk movement took tentative Doc Marten-clad steps forward. The look they popularised, which was ripped, zipped and held together with safety pins, is now both recognisable and iconic. The equally well-known Pirates collection followed, and she is still a flame-haired force both within and outside the industry today. There are other supposedly infamous facts shot through so many articles like arrows – collecting an OBE while knicker-less; her famously outspoken nature; a husband twenty-five years her junior. However, to distill Westwood to these specific moments is to make a rough line drawing of a richly vibrant and colourful character. It doesn’t take into account how literate and smart she is, or how she is the best advocate for not giving a damn for what others think. There’s also that inexhaustable talent when it comes to designing clothes – a talent that has won her accolades, awards and a large number of fans in well-draped dresses.
Her stridently expressed views often appear contradictory – who else would suggest "don't buy clothes" whilst simultaneously sating a demand for tailoring and t-shirts? However, her views on the overblown scale of consumerism do bear thinking about. I often find myself questioning the conundrum of a deep interest in the world of fashion when examined in the context of certain moral and ethical issues. There is no clear answer, but perhaps like Westwood, it is a question of balance. Alongside presenting shows in both London and Paris, she has also collaborated with the Ethical Fashion Program to produce a set of bags that are “holistic” in their approach to sustainable style – providing jobs for women in extreme poverty.
For of course, this is a woman willing to champion the cause of Occupy London, with their just criticism of the malpractice of the bankers - with their bonuses and boats and lack of awareness of the damage wreaked on a fragile economy. She has also donated to Rainforest charity Cool Earth, advocated the Refugee Council, pushed for a plastic-bag free London and supported both Liberty and CND. This is a woman with passionate beliefs. It soaks through her blog, demonstrating the power of an active and engaged mind. For someone like me, who is interested in the cerebral and aesthetic, there is something immensely heartening in seeing the phrase “art lovers unite”. One can imagine her shouting it with a smile.
I hate to suggest that she is defined by her “British”-ness – a term that now conjures up little more than tea cups, union jacks and red phone boxes. But when one places Westwood alongside some of the other designers produced by this country – Christopher Bailey, the late Alexander Mcqueen, Stella McCartney and Hannah Macgibbon to name just a few of the great and good – they are all are marked out not by any degree of similarity, but by their difference in approach, however unorthodox. However, they are perhaps united in once sense – their clothes will always stay memorable.
Westwood holds significance for me in that she was the first ‘proper’ designer I encountered. I have no idea where or how I found out about her work and general antics, but there is photographic proof that aged ten or eleven, I was really embracing the ripped and ruined look. I used to keep a large basket of fabric scraps under my bed, ready to cut, wrap or tie into Barbie clothes (my feminist mum was only going to allow Barbies into the house if there was a certain level of creativity involved). The contents of the basket slowly altered to include a number of old shirts and unwanted items of clothing that I could ‘customise’ with glee for myself. Inspired by what I thought a 'punk' might wear, I snipped away at a horrible sports t-shirt until there was little left beyond the seams, and then wore it with tights cut off at the knee and a section of fabric tied around my waist as a skirt. It wasn’t particularly precocious though – I am still faintly embarrassed to look at the resulting photos of that outfit. But one needs those flickers of creativity. Not only do they form the basis for cheerful memories – but also without some over-excitement with the scissors and glitter glue, who knows whether I would ever have thought of the possibilities of the sewing machine. Admittedly my pattern cutting skills are limited to the point of non-existence, but perhaps Vivienne Westwood, in some convoluted way, contributed to my ability to make a great gathered skirt out of my grandma’s curtains.
My mum bought the jacket in a charity shop (thinking “Ooh, that reminds me of VW!”) as a Christmas present for me. The long grey dress is also second hand, from a Bristol charity shop in Clifton. The gold torque was another Christmas present from a flea market, and the often-featured belt was my paternal grandmother’s. The shoes are vintage (and now very muddy) Pierre Cardin from eBay. On a final note, one can’t mention Vivienne Westwood without providing a link to Pearl’s blog – who, as well as being something of an authority on all things Westwood-design related, also has an extensive and enviably beautiful collection of her designs.