Master Class: Vivienne Westwood's Historical Romp through the 1980s
Few fashion designers have used and manipulated the clothes of past centuries for quite such subversive and fantastic ends as Vivienne Westwood. Since her first forays into design with the shop Let It Rock, which in 1971 plundered 1950s British Teddy Boy style, Westwood was aware of the power of revisiting history and subverting it in order to create a rebellious new vision. As an integral voice of the punk aesthetic, she was part of a movement that believed there was no future; by 1980, however, the central tenant of punk that “clothes equal rebellion” exhausted Westwood. Looking at a history far before her own lifetime, Westwood began her research at Foyle’s bookshop in London, which led her to the National Arts Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Through the work of costume historians Janet Arnold and Norah Waugh, Westwood discovered the intricacies and techniques of a millennium’s worth of dress; she has since spent the last 37 years mining that millennium for a multitude of men’s and women’s collections. Many threads of nostalgia reappear within Vivienne Westwood’s historicism; through her motifs and silhouettes, she finds meaning for today in the clothes of yesteryear.
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In 1979, Westwood and her then-partner, Malcolm McLaren, closed Seditionaries, the last punk incarnation of their series of stores at 430 Kings Road. Renovated in the style of a 17th-century galleon, their new boutique World’s End was the perfect breeding ground for Vivienne’s new look. Copying 18th-century men’s trousers and shirt patterns from Waugh’s research, Westwood produced remarkably comfortable garments that were unlike anything fashion has seen in centuries. Billowing, asymmetric, and convex in retaliation to the super tight clothes of disco and punk, Westwood’s new designs had the swagger of a movie swashbuckler. They were shown at her first runway show in the spring of 1981. ‘Pirates’ was a unisex exploration of the past-made-future: a soon-to-be iconic squiggle print alongside a rush of gold, red, and orange. Through this collection, Westwood realized her own talents and ideas as a designer and not just a facilitator of McLaren’s dreams. While Westwood and McLaren believed passionately in their new aesthetic, they had little faith in its commercial possibilities. McLaren managed the bands Bow Wow Wow and Adam & the Ants, and dressed them completely in pirate gear. Westwood and McLaren were therefore surprised when British Vogue ran a four page feature endorsing ‘Pirates’ as a celebration of London’s romance, in addition to when Bloomingdale’s in New York put in a large order.
Once Westwood realized the power of historical references, her career started on a new path, which allowed her to straddle the divide between her subcultural background and the world of high fashion. In an interview earlier this year, Westwood said, “We are the past. Where do you get your ideas from, if not from the past?” After ‘Pirates,’ she plundered a number of other historical periods and cultures for inspiration. Her following two collections, ‘Savages’ (S/S 1982) and ‘Buffalo’/’Nostalgia of Mud’ (A/W 1982), continued the layering, manipulated, and asymmetrical tailoring of ‘Pirates,’ overlaid with Native American and primitivist motifs and details. She added to her stash of historical signatures with each collection; in ‘Nostalgia of Mud’, Westwood forayed into lingerie-as-outerwear with a silk bra worn on top of a shirt, while in ‘Punkature’ (S/S 1983) she printed dresses with an 18th-century toile de jouy overlaid with images from the film Blade Runner.
After several collections that focused on futurism, Americana, and sportswear—‘Witches’ (A/W 1983), ‘Hypnos’ (S/S 1984) and ‘Clint Eastwood’ (A/W 1984), respectively— Westwood returned to her roots and her original research with ‘Mini Crini’ (S/S 1985). This marked a distinct shift of direction that still fitted her own tenants on fashion: “Historically, clothes have been about changing the shape of the body. Fashion has been about having a restriction, and about often radically changing the look of the body,” said Westwood in Vivienne Westwood. While antiquated tailoring and loose layers marked this change in her previous collections, Westwood moved toward body-conscious tops and abbreviated crinolines that combined 19th century shapes taken from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1 & 2 with the mini-length of the 1980s. Building upon this was her collection ‘Harris Tweed’ for A/W 1985, wherein Westwood subverted the classic sartorial stereotypes of the Queen and the British establishment, which she had loudly railed against during her punk days. This collection featured riding jackets, tweed suits and twinsets refitted to hug curves, an 18th-century corset as outerwear, and a crown made of tweed. ‘Harris Tweed,’ more than her other collections, introduced many of her styles still in production; it also introduced her logo, the orb.
In a 1987 issue of Vogue UK, Westwood said, “The vitality of culture lies on the line between what is orthodox and what is not. I always try to be on that line.” By parodying the orthodox of the British upper class, Westwood created a fashion language loved by fashion insiders, club kids and the very members of society that inspired her. The five collections that followed from S/S 1988 to S/S 1990 were collectively known as the ‘Britain Must go Pagan’ series, entitled ‘Pagan I’, ‘Time Machine’, ‘Civilizade’, ‘Voyage to Cythera’, and ‘Pagan V’. These collections playfully combined this send-up of British aristocratic dress with disparate influences such as Ancient Greek statues, theater costumes, and Sèvres porcelain. They illuminated Westwood’s advances in the precision of her tailoring and the confidence of her previous decade’s ideas.
Westwood has since refined, reworked and remixed the stylistic tropes she developed in the 1980s using her own work as a reference. These included corsets printed with 18th-century paintings (‘Portrait’, A/W 1990), sculpted into ball gowns (‘Café Society’, S/S 1994), and produced in cotton for her more affordable Anglomania line. The heavy, multi-layered, and jumbled aesthetic Westwood first premiered with ‘Pirates’ and brought to its zenith with ‘Nostalgia of Mud’ still appears in her current collections, now designed by her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. Their recent Spring 2018 collection exhibited many of Westwood's signatures, such as corsets, asymmetric and schlumpy tailoring, and prints taken from 18th century paintings, all layered. Westwood’s passion for historical research also continues in support of The School of Historical Dress, which holds Janet Arnold’s archive; Westwood spoke at the school’s launch and wrote the forward to the school’s Footwear book. Speaking of Westwood’s impact, principal Jenny Tiramani said to Heroine, “I think the influence of her design has been to advance the idea that the study of historical dress can be used to subvert the ideas of the past and employ them for street fashion as well as fashion for the elite. She has shown that in studying and understanding the techniques of the past (of shape, construction and decoration) new creations can benefit.” The ease in which historical, artistic and cultural ideals and ideas play out across Westwood and Kronthaler’s designs has allowed them to retain a freshness of purpose and intellectual vision every season.