How is Vivienne Westwood influenced by the 1970’s punk subculture movement?

“There was a chaos of quiffs and leather jackets, brothel creepers and winkle pickers, plimsolls and parka macs, moddy crops and skinhead strides, drainpipes and vivid socks, bum freezers and bovver boots – all kept ‘in place’ and ‘out of time’ by the spectacular adhesives: the safety pins and plastic clothes pegs, the bondage straps and bits of string which attracted so much horrified and fascinated attention.”

  • (Hebdige, 1979, pg. 29)

“Through the masks of worldliness, today the clothed body is more than just an automaton, more than just a body in the age of technical reproduction. It has become a mutant body, a body that changes its appearance in virtue of relational values and a category of otherness implicit in the term ‘worldly’. These values produce lifestyles that lead to aesthetic choices, patterns of behaviour, aspirations and projects which otherwise would not be ‘with the times’ except in the most conventional sense.”

  • (Calefato, 2004)

Do clothes speak? Semiotics in fashion refers to how a person’s status, class, and gender can be interpreted through the study and interpretation of signs and symbols.

It is the study of the unspoken language that reveals the ideologies broadcasted through dress. By looking at fashion through a multidisciplinary approach, it can be understood how much of what someone wears publicises their social identity and their consumerist pattern. This essay will explore how punks used fashion to communicate anti-political, anti-establishment views, the promotion of one’s individual freedom and to what extent fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s work has been influenced by the punk subculture movement.

The punk movement emerged into the UK in the mid-70s as a counterculture in response to the commercialisation of the ‘hippie’ lifestyle. Bands such as The Stooges and MC5 began to play in a lounder and more aggressive form of rock and roll which is allegedly how the first punk scene was formed. In November 1976, the world had their first taste of punk with ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by British band the Sex Pistols. It would be later featured on their debut album, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, but not before the Sex Pistols shot from underground musicians, to international fame. (Penguin, 2017). The band referenced the political and social issues happening in the UK, particularly in London, alongside other bands such as The Clash. Music had been a catalyst for youth subculture since the counterculture of the 1960s, with, for example, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s anti-war protest songs, leading teenagers to question convention throughout every part of society, from elitist class divisions to clothing. And with punk’s anarchist core, this subculture was no different. As a response to the music, punks took an anti-consumerist DIY approach to their clothing, ripping, painting and pinning second hand clothes together.

Activism and fashion in punk was acknowledged by large numbers of people and subsequently this style became commercialized and filtered into mass-market fashion. An example of this is Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s boutique on 430 Kings Road, particularly the collections tilted SEX and Seditionaries’. It has been claimed that this was the centre of commercialized punk fashion for bands such as the Sex Pistols. “In 1974, newly christened Sex, the store featured rubber S&M clothing and pieces with intentional rips, oversize zippers and slogan t-shirts. By 1976, Seditionaries—Clothes for Heroes, as the store was then named, had become an important source for punk looks. The notorious punk group the Sex Pistols played their first music gig in 1975 in clothes from Seditionaries.” (Deihl, 2009) Seditionaries transformed the straps and zips of sexual fetishism, intertwining bondage with images of suffering to shock and create empathy in order to provoke the viewer. The subculture as a collective was promoting a violation against any social and conventional norms, practically within youth-ism.

Vivienne Westwood has been at the centre of British fashion, alongside other designers including “Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Emmanuel Ungaro, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix ‘who are true twinkling stars… from them, all fashion hangs by a golden thread.’” (Wilcox, 2004, pg. 9) Born in Derbyshire 1941, Westwood moved to London and met Malcom McLaren who “gave Westwood a focus for her restless idealism, as well as the opportunity to harness a natural flair for dressmaking.” (V&A, 2018) It is clear that Vivienne Westwood is well known world-wide for her part in the creation of punk and her contribution to referencing youth-cultures past through clothes. By the mid 70’s, Westwood and McLaren designed rock and roll clothes, specialising in fetish wear that they sold edgy, young punks that shocked people and referenced atypical sexual desires. “I did the Anarchy sign. Punk was a culmination of previous collections. We were trying to form a band of rebels who would topple the system” (Westwood, 2016, pg.1). They aimed to create a uniform that would shake the core of British convention, by taking T-shirts and collaging them with feathers, studs, and chains; slicing nipple-revealing holes conducting an anti-fashion style. Westwood took the ideologies from punk in order to create clothing that represented their identities as anti-conformist, young rebels with outfits that would stand up to the ideals. Her garments such as the ‘Bondage suit’ (fig. 1) consisted of torn up and rectified elements were a representation of an action against conformity. The bondage suit had a detachable towelling bum flap and hobble straps, and was first worn by John Rotten of the Sex Pistols in Paris. This particular garment is a classic example of how Westwood was designing clothes that were particularly menacing and almost all entirely black in order to shape punk style as an identity and shock the world. “The point of this stylistic extremism is simple: it polarizes. Through alienation it creates a sense of community. Identify through outrage.” (York, 1984, pg. 106) It is evident that Westwood was influenced by the ideologies of punk because she was responding to the political issues by creating anti-fashion in a deliberate attempt to provoke the establishment by dressing the masses.

However, it can also be argued that Vivienne Westwood was not entirely influenced by the punk subculture movement explicitly as her designs have always been inspired by rebel culture and self-expression. Since its opening of ‘SEX’ in 1970, it has released many collections Westwood used as a tool for activism in fashion. In her 1981 Pirate fashion show, Westwood’s first catwalk (fig. 2) consisted of a collection designed for World’s End (as SEX and Seditionaries is now known) signifying how Westwood believed that culture has its roots in the past, with illusions of originality. She was heavily influenced by art and history and believed that 20th century society had forgotten how culture was necessary in order for us to evolve.

Furthermore, Westwood states in her latest diaries that her work has heavily been influenced by previous designers and artist’s, and she uses her fashion as a mechanism to spark public awareness of political and climate issues: “I want to warn people of the danger we’re in from climate change; and I talk about fashion to alleviate the hard focus which nevertheless we must grapple to save the world.” (Westwood, 2016, pg. 8) By combing traditional British elements of design such as tartan and tweed in clothing, Westwood stresses the importance of classical British heritage where fashion must be “built on tradition and inspiration” (Westwood, 2016, pg. 8). Combining her individualism continually with her exploration and perception of British history within contemporary fashion, she raises awareness of social-economic and cultural climate issues within the UK. She has continually used her designs to communicate and symbolise emotions and themes in her collections, which especially come across when they are presented on the catwalk. The semiotics of the clothes is inherently provocative as she “deconstructs cliché [and] confronts prejudices” (Tredre, 2009, pg. 183), and this is emphasised by taking these ideologies onto the constraints and conventions of the mainstream catwalk.

One collection in particular, the 1986 Mini-Crini collection signifies Westwood’s movement towards historical referencing within her designs. The Mini-Crini Collection (fig. 3) featured ruffled skirts with extreme emphasis on the hip and waist area of women, exaggerating and distorting the female form in order to create a sexually driven garment to shock the viewer into an absurd vision of feminine forms. She was using fashion in order to communicate the power of the female body, at the time when other designers were designing shoulder pads into female suits. The collection indicates how Vivienne Westwood was going against the fashion systems at the time and using her designs as a mechanism to communicate personal propaganda, physically and mentally arousing the audience.

Additionally, it could also be argued that part of Vivienne Westwood’s extremism within provocative and shocking catwalk is driven by the motive to gain media attention. The garments themselves are not single handily enough to gain the necessary media attention towards new collections, therefore designers have recently focused more on the design of the show itself. The catwalk is no longer a display for collections, the catwalk itself has become the display, “even the traditional model came to be replaced firstly by elderly and schoolgirl models and then, in a final ironic twist, by the same celebrities that once made up their audiences.” (Khan, 2001. Pg 117) Westwood’s radical catwalk shows could be considered as a tool for provoking strong public relations to gain media attention in such a competitive field of work, especially seeing as at fashion shows there are more than 100 catwalks that take place over the 7-day period. The catwalk becomes a superficial extravagant display, almost like a performance, which consumerists feed into because they enjoy the here and now and new.

Overall, when looking at Westwood’s design from a multi-disciplinary approach, one could consider that she has always been driven by social and cultural issues within the UK, which has translated into her work throughout her entire career as a designer. “A meticulous researcher and an unashamed ‘plunderer’ of the past, Vivienne Westwood has continually raided historical fashions to create some of contemporary fashion’s most original looks.” (V&A, 2018) Throughout her career she has been driven by history, art, design, politics and social issues. It is clear to see that Vivienne Westwood was extremely influenced by the 1970’s punk subculture movement, however it could be said that her early punk days were merely a spark towards her evolvement into a political activist fashion designer; additionally, it could be said that the punk movement in relation to fashion itself was not commercialized or mass-marketed until Westwood shaped it. She carries on to this day designing collections that push for awareness upon climate change, civil liberties and nuclear disarmament. It does however need to be considered that her obvious extremism to catwalk shows and collections could be an instrument to gain global recognition through public relations in an ever-growing, evolving competitive industry.

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