Vivienne Westwood, Fashion Designer, Mother of Punk Style, Dies at 81

Westwood was a fashion maverick, an environmental activist, who went from scruffy designer of ripped streetwear to couturier to movie stars

Vivienne Westwood, famous in her early adult life for poking and provoking the masses, later outfitting stars and supermodels as a lauded couturier, passed away on Thursday, December 29, at the age of 81 in southwest London’s Clapham section. Her passing was announced by the Vivienne Westwood fashion house, which did not state a cause of death.

Born in Glossop near Manchester in 1941 to a seamstress mother, Westwood briefly attended art school, became a schoolteacher, then married Derek Westwood, a dance hall manager. They had a son, Ben Westwood, who became a photographer of erotica. Her relationship with impresario Malcolm McLaren—who went on to manage the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls—which began in the mid ’60s, produced a son, Joe Corre, who founded Agent Provocateur, a well known lingerie brand. In the early nineties, Westwood married Austrian designer Andreas Kronthaler, who’s been the creative director of the Vivienne Westwood brand since 2016.

Interesting that Westwood should pass away the same year as Queen Elizabeth. McLaren and Westwood opened the famed dawn-of-punk store, called Sex, in 1974. Three years later, the Sex Pistols—who’s safety-pinned, ragged clothes Westwood created with McLaren—kicked off a style revolution. That year, 1977, on the band’s first and only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, the boys belted out the iconic lyrics: “God save the queen. She ain’t no human being.”

The entire stance of the nihilist punk movement of the 70’s was anti-British royalty, government, all of it. Leather biker jackets, wide silver zippers and studs, plaids, pirate shirts, ripped shirts and jeans, safety pins and the like were her punk signatures, and the Pistols became the most influential models of her clothes. They inverted the Union Jack as a motif with rips, tears and smudges. No one, particularly the Pistols themselves, ever expected them to become fashion stars. But Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and the rest of the band, in Westwood’s designs, helped set fire to early 70’s glitter/glam rock and disco styles. She and McLaren also loved shocking people with elements of S&M, like bondage shirts that resembled straitjackets, which were the highlight their first runway collection in 1981.

One T-shirt they created featured Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her lip. In 2006, that very Queen named Westwood a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire—and so the proto-punk reemerged as Dame Vivienne Westwood.

Dame Commander is the second-highest title a civilian can receive in the Empire, awarded in recognition of public service, and Westwood earned it many times over. Even rising to the level of couturier in her fashion career, it was always political causes that motivated her. She got involved with nuclear disarmament advocacy, vegetarianism, environmentalist and climate change. She was also an early proponent of unisex dressing. Her first U.S. boutique opened in 2011 in Los Angeles, choosing it over New York because of the amount of music people who live here. The store is still there today, at 8320 Melrose.

Vivienne Westwood’s influence on fashion itself—fashion and culture—is almost immeasurable. John Fairchild, who with his family created fashion bibles Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine, regularly attended her Paris and London shows in the ’90s, calling her “the only true original on the block.”

Punk princess and guitarist for ’80s band the Slits, Viv Albertine, wrote in her memoir, “Vivienne and Malcolm use clothes to shock, irritate and provoke a reaction but also to inspire change. Mohair jumpers, knitted on big needles, so loosely that you can see all the way through them, T-shirts slashed and written on by hand, seams and labels on the outside, showing the construction of the piece; these attitudes are reflected in the music we make. It’s OK to not be perfect, to show the workings of your life and your mind in your songs and your clothes.”

As Westwood moved into the mainstream of fashion in the ’80s, her signature became corset shapes and corsetry. Westwood referred to it as “New Romantic”—you could see the influences in acts like Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant and Boy George. Her coats and jackets were built around corset shapes, with décolletage, tight waists and either oversized, tailored pinstripe suits (for women and men), or big, wide Victorian bustle skirts. With women’s clothes, she used the draping method of creating shapes throughout her career, which set her apart from most modern designers except for John Galliano. Cut on the bias.

More recently, Westwood was hired by Richard Branson to design the uniforms for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and Dita von Teese donned a purple Westwood wedding gown to tie the knot with Marilyn Manson in 2005.

Punk to the end, when she was awarded her title by Queen Elizabeth in 2006, Dame Vivienne Westwood wore no undies beneath her tailored suit—which she revealed to photographers when she gave her skirt a twirl.

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