Vivienne Westwood: Clothes, tanks, and freedom fighting

“I’m a heretic.” Vivienne Westwood is sitting across the table from me, and looking at her I can well believe it. Dressed in a black knit catsuit and asymmetrical shirt, accessorised with chunky heels and a conker necklace, Westwood is doing just as she pleases. She looks different; she looks incredible. This of course, is nothing new: even from an early age, she tells me, she didn’t want to follow the herd: “I was very polite and respectful as a child, but I always wanted to do things differently.” 

‘Do things differently’ is an understatement - we are, after all, talking about one of the world’s most celebrated fashion designers, practically the inventor of punk style, still designing, and controlling a multi-million pound business at 74, as well as spearheading an environmental campaign for Climate Revolution, the NGO she founded. 

But it turns out that this understatement is characteristic of Westwood. She may be outspoken and passionate about her beliefs, outrageous and shocking in her designs - but in person she has a softness and gentleness about her. She apologises to me for answering my first question at some length (as if I wasn’t drinking in every word). I won’t pretend that I began my interview - the first I’ve ever conducted - in anything but a state of utter terror. Vivienne Westwood is the first fashion designer I was aware of. As a fashion designer, she’s a role model for me - with her passion and success, she’s also a female icon.

Gender is something we speak about during the interview, its role in Westwood’s designs - her Autumn/Winter 2015 collection featured male models in dresses cut for women and women in suits with a traditionally masculine cut. “Fashion”, she says “is there to help - it’s there to make you look better. […] I think fashion can help you to express a part of yourself you didn’t even really know existed. […] People have to find a way to express themselves.”

She tells me about cutting the patterns for the collection: “in that fashion show men could dress like women and the same dress that could be worn on a woman, exactly the same dress as a man: the dresses were designed size-wise to be possible to fit both. Now then the ladies one, it’s one of my favourite dresses, one of them - I’ve taken one from the collection. I have to wear a little vest underneath it, otherwise I’m too exposed - but on a man it fits nicely. Anyway, when you do that it makes the people look a bit like kings and queens because it’s a bit historical as well. There’s a certain nobility because of the historical reference and the third world reference, something exotic and really romantic about it. I think that’s more interesting, that the women’s clothes fit the men.” 

On the subject of women and androgyny, her answer bears her trademark gentle flippancy: “I care about the environment and our maxim for fashion is ‘buy less, choose well, make it last’. If you wear your boyfriend’s clothes you can cut down your fashion spending by half if you want.” 

There’s no judgement here, no desire to limit what any person might have to express. Westwood treats this subject with the same irreverent, joyful attitude that she seems to bring to everything. When I ask her why she made the decision to deconstruct assumptions about gender in her collection, her reply was telling: “Well, I don’t know, it’s just fun to do that isn’t it?”

If Vivienne Westwood wants to remove the gender barriers that exist in the way we dress, it’s not because she feels limited as a woman: “When I was a young girl I was really astonished when I discovered that some of my friends - when I was about 8 or 9 - they wanted to be boys because they thought that boys had more freedom. And I just thought, what a funny idea - because I always thought that I could do whatever I wanted, really.”

She speaks about her experiences at art college: “It was a foundation course, and every Friday you did fashion. I was so fed up and bored - we had to draw all these things and we couldn’t make anything!” She switched course to silversmithing, just to be able to do something more hands-on, but not knowing how you actually made a living as an artist, she left college to train as a secretary. After a stint at a Kodak factory, and later as a primary school teacher, she eventually found her own way into the fashion industry. 

Westwood’s first punk designs shocked the nation - but today she shows focuses little on punk: “I stopped being interested in punk - they weren’t at all political, they just liked jumping around and pogoing and looked absolutely great. It’s still a great look and I think it’s wonderful to have invented a real look, of rebellion supposedly. The thing that’s left to me regarding punk is that the attitude of a punk is don’t trust what you’re told. Whether they do or not I don’t know but that’s the kind of stance they take - I think that’s quite good.”

Westwood’s frustration at the lack of political engagement amongst punks is understandable - today, she herself is extremely political. Not that she really engages with the system: she has little time for government - “once they’re voted in they do what they like” - and sees our current free market capitalism as “a rotten financial system”. Her form of political engagement is theatrical, active, making a statement. This summer, she drove a tank to David Cameron’s house to protest against fracking. I asked her about the role that clothes play in that kind of visual, theatrical statement.

“Well I did think about what to wear, and I thought I’d wear something rather romantic. All my clothes are romantic: I’m a freedom fighter, whatever that looks like. Just had something not exactly historical, but romantic in the sense of a romantic heroine. So I did choose this long black skirt and this little sack cloth jacket and white high-heeled shoes. I just felt that that was something really, I don’t know, in a world I wanted to be - I thought it was good for the tank. I think it was: I think it was better than if I’d looked like some tough guy.”

This is Vivienne Westwood: clothes and politics came together, to express an idea, and something about who she is. She says that her clothes “tell a story […] they’re theatrical in that sense.” As I left the Union following her speech, I listened to the other members of the audience. They all seemed a little dazed, but it was impossible to miss the element of discontent - “I wanted her to speak about fashion”, one complained. It’s true that Westwood’s talk was for the most part about climate change. But to see her political and ethical beliefs and her fashion as totally separate entities misses the point somewhat. 

She spoke at length about the role of culture in shaping how we act as a society: culture, she said, is about art, and the things we make as humans. We’re set apart from animals in that we can make things - and not just practical things, but things that aren’t real, that imitate the world. 

Both are important - and in a sense fashion bridges the gap between the two: functional, but artistic. Westwood spoke a lot about how humans are set apart from the natural order - every other species gives and takes, but we only take. She said that we need to be part of the system, but also to reflect on it, to “mirror the world”. 

“You should mirror the world as it ought to be, not just as it is” - this is what culture allows us to do. It’s no coincidence that Westwood’s Gold Label collection for Spring/Summer 2016 - which shimmered down the runway in September - lists its inspiration as “mirror the world”. Anyone who thought she wasn’t talking about fashion has missed the point - fashion doesn’t have to be flimsy, insubstantial thing trapped in its own bubble. It can be a powerful tool to communicate who we are and what we believe.  

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