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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Vivienne Westwood (born 1941) and the Postmodern Legacy of Punk Style

Vivienne Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Glossop, Derbyshire, in 1941 and has come to be known as one of the most influential British fashion designers of the twentieth century. While she is latterly credited with introducing “underwear as outerwear,” reviving the corset, and inventing the “mini-crini,”1 her earliest and most formative association is with the subcultural fashion and youth movement known as punk.2

Mother of Punk
Vivienne Westwood is often cited as punk’s creator, but the complex genesis of punk is also found in England’s depressed economic and sociopolitical conditions of the mid-1970s. Punk was as much a youthful reaction against older generations, considered oppressive and outdated, as a product of the newly recognized and influential youth culture. Creative and entrepreneurial people, such as Westwood, often contribute to an aesthetic that brings a subcultural style to the forefront of fashion. However, it would be simplistic to claim, as many have, that Westwood and her one-time partner Malcolm McLaren were uniquely responsible for the visual construction of punk in the mid-1970s, though much of their work captured and commodified the energy and iconoclastic tendencies of the movement.3

The New York Effect
In the early 1970s, the socioeconomics of New York City were no better than London’s. Local rock groups were reinventing music and style in protest against what had become perceived as the star-centered, showy, and elitist mentality of ’60s super-groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. These local bands, such as the New York Dolls and performer Richard Hell, were breaking down barriers at the infamous proto-punk club, Max’s. Hell was well known for his nihilistic lyrics and wearing of self-styled ripped T-shirts bearing slogans like “Please Kill Me.” The original fanzine of the era, PUNK, was published in New York City and is credited with the first use of the term. Malcolm McLaren, Westwood’s boyfriend and “partner in crime,” was living in New York during this time and briefly managed the New York Dolls. According to punk lore, McLaren took this radical New York aesthetic back to London, where he opened the SEX clothing shop with Westwood and managed the Sex Pistols, creating a media frenzy and a prosperous symbiotic relationship between music and fashion that effectively set the tone of popular culture for decades to come.

Anarchy in the U.K.
Westwood, a former schoolteacher, was the seamstress in the SEX shop partnership with McLaren and made manifest their combined punk vision through her creations. Westwood designed both her and McLaren’s clothing before they opened their first store, Let It Rock, in 1971. Let It Rock catered to the “Teddy Boy” subculture, which was a 1950s revival look. In 1972, they renamed the store Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, and changed the focus to emphasize the emergence of the Marlon Brando-influenced rocker/biker style that was popular at the time. In 1974, they again changed the name of the shop to reflect McLaren’s new shock tactics, this time to SEX, where they sold S&M (sado-masochistic) inspired clothing, met the Sex Pistols, and added their punk line, Seditionaries,4 in 1976.5 SEX was the center of the punk fashion scene and many young punks hung out, worked, or bought clothes there when they could afford them. Shrewd entrepreneurs, Westwood and McLaren were instrumental in defining and marketing the punk look at the precise moment that it was taking the streets of London by storm.

Rotten, Vicious Fashion
Childhood friends Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious claim names that evoke the true essence of punk. The Sex Pistols, their short-lived and infamous band, changed the face of music and gave voice to a disenfranchised generation. The Sex Pistols were working-class, antagonistic, innovative teenagers turned “punk” before it had a name.6 The clothing popularized by the Sex Pistols could be seen as a reaction against, as well as the culmination of, a long line of proscribed postwar British subcultural styles, including mods, skinheads, rastas, and rudies.

The Sex Pistols needed a manager to guide them and McLaren and Westwood needed an outlet for their ideas, both fashionable and political. To this day, there is much debate about whether McLaren was the architect of punk ideology. A known Situationist,7 McLaren supposedly created the Sex Pistols solely as a marketing tool for the SEX shop, but singer Johnny Rotten disputes this, emphasizing that the band existed prior to the collaboration with Westwood and McLaren but were used as models for the ideal punk look through their stage clothes often supplied by SEX.8

Deconstructing Punk
Punk was trash culture gone avant-garde and/or the avant-garde gone trash, and just as Dada had tried to destroy the institution of art, so the punks seemed bent on destroying the very institution of fashion.9

Philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction,” a term used to describe the process of uncovering the multiplicity of meanings in text, has been used to analyze everything from modern art to architecture. As applied to fashion, deconstruction has come to imply a decoding of both meaning and designer intent, as well as a descriptive term for certain structural characteristics.

The punk look has come to be associated with clothing that has been destroyed, has been put back together, is inside out, is unfinished, or is deteriorating.10 Punk was an early manifestation of deconstructionist fashion, which is an important component of late twentieth-century postmodern style and continues to be seen in the work of contemporary fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela.

“A Nightmare of Interchangeable Surfaces”11
The definition of postmodern is elusive, but its connection to punk ideology and style appears intrinsic:

“On the one hand, to designate oneself as ‘post’ anything, is to admit a certain exhaustion, diminution or decay. Someone who inhabits a post-culture is a late comer to a party … Belatedness may also imply a certain dependence, for the post-culture cannot even define itself in any free-standing way, but is condemned to the parasitic prolongation of some vanished cultural achievement.”12

Many scholars see this incessant atavism, this self-referential bricolage, as precisely what defines the postmodern, a term frequently used to describe the designs of Vivienne Westwood and punk fashion in general. The do-it-yourself attitude of punk styling was a unique product of a particular sociocultural history after which, during the 1980s and ’90s, global style continued to evolve along the same aesthetic trajectory. Other elements that have recently been associated with the postmodern mode include clothing and imagery that appear dirty, ripped, scarred, shocking, spectacular, cruel, traumatized, sick, or alienating13—all of these were qualities actively sought by Vivienne Westwood and the punks of the 1970s.

Postmodernism = No Future
Punk was both a product and a victim of late capitalism. As the most quickly digested of all previous youth subcultures, it came to fruition and fell victim to mass marketing in less than three years.14 Since then, punk has never entirely gone out of style. Soon after the Sex Pistols disbanded in 1978, one could see punks everywhere in London, the U.S., and elsewhere. One still sees flamboyant teenagers wearing bondage trousers and studded leather motorcycle jackets on streets such as St. Marks Place in New York City, where these garments are still sold in quantity. Punk has even taken more than one turn at being an inspiration for haute couture. In the twenty-first century, punk and hip-hop, another subcultural style born of strife, have been fused together into what has become the standard look for contemporary youth.

The Costume Institute’s collection of Vivienne Westwood’s early work pays homage to punk’s influence and situates historically these authentic garments of a subcultural style that has few rivals in its continued influence on Western fashion’s mavericks.

1 A Victorian-inspired short hooped skirt.
2 “Punk: A British subculture of the mid-1970s epitomized by the look and attitude of The Sex Pistols. The style most often associated with Punk involves bondage trousers worn with ripped T-shirts with anarchic slogans and boots. Hair and make-up was an integral part of Punk—hair was dyed violently bright colours and made to stand up on end, and facial piercing (particularly cheeks and noses) became popular.” Amy de la Haye and Cathie Dingwall, Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads & Skaters (New York: Overlook Press, 1996), p. 13.
3 Christopher Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 233.
4 “Sedition: The stirring up of discontent, resistance, or rebellion against the government in power; revolt or rebellion.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Third Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1988), p. 1214. Vivienne Westwood: “The word ‘seditionaries’ … has always meant to me the necessity to seduce people into revolt.” Chester, Lewis. Mother of Punk in “Hot Air”, UK (1998), p. 62.
5 At the end of the 1970s, the name of the shop became World’s End, after the London neighborhood in which it is located.
6 John Gray, a longtime childhood friend: “Even in those days John had the green hair and wore a baseball cap from back to front. He wore baggy army trousers and a T-shirt with holes.” John Lydon, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (New York: Picador, 1994), p. 39.
7 “A quasi-anarchistic group formed in Paris in 1957, a political evolution from the avant-garde ideas of Dada and Surrealism earlier in the century. The aim of their political philosophy was to re-empower the proletariat, whose lives were summed up in the Situationist slogan: metro-boulot-TV-dodo (subway-work-TV-sleep). They felt that in what they dubbed the Society of the Spectacle people had turned into consumers of mediated events, mediated ideas and mediated actions, and that their role was to challenge that enforced passivity by breaking down the barriers between direct and mediated experience. The artist depicting situations and feelings was merely colluding with the forces that created the Society of the Spectacle. The role of the artists, as they saw it, was to create challenging situations.” Nils Stevenson, Vacant: A Diary of the Punk Years, 1976–1979 (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 8.
8 Lydon, Rotten, p. 70.
9 Elizabeth Wilson, Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 173.
10 These are characteristics that are easily seen in extant Seditionaries garments featured in the holdings of The Costume Institute.
11 Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, 2d ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 216.
12 Ibid., p. 65.
13 For an exhaustive and inspired exploration of these aspects of late twentieth-century fashion, see Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
14 Today the turnaround of the process of acculturation is much shorter, ostensibly due to the speed of our media and our postmodern appetite for the new; so much so that subcultures may not even be recognized as such before they are scooped up and sold as the “next big thing.” Philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard see this as the method by which the “Establishment” controls subversion and thereby retains control. This would help to explain why punk was absorbed and resold so quickly, effectively stripping it of its power and meaning. The style and antagonistic actions of the punks challenged the status quo of 1970s England in an overt way as no movement has had the opportunity to do since.