OPINION | WHY ARE WE STILL PRETENDING VIVIENNE WESTWOOD WAS PUNK?
The fact of the matter is you cannot claim to be anti-authoritarian while charging £1,200 for t-shirts.
Cover image credit: Patrick Kovarik / AFP
"It was a store, not a bar or political headquarters.” Tama Janowitz was nineteen when she stumbled into the Malcolm McLaren–Vivienne Westwood shop, presumably at some point in the mid-seventies. She remembers the atmosphere of the infamous World's End bondage boutique in her 2016 auto-biography Scream, complete with descriptions of the 4-foot sign of pink foam rubber letters spelling out its name, SEX, and an interior covered with graffiti from Dworkin's SCUM Manifesto. "I wanted to see London. I saw this shop, I went in. There was a rack with a half dozen T-shirts hanging on it. The shirts said SEX and had big rips and were held together with safety pins and cost sixty pounds. Some I think were eighty pounds. That was a huge amount of money.”
And indeed it was. £80 in 1975 is worth approximately £860 today -- which, incidentally, is just about enough money to buy the lower half of the pointed corset dress from their S/S 23 collection (100% polyester, RRP £1,500). Janowitz (better known as one of the founding members of the literary Brat Pack, a group of young American authors including Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney) was witnessing the birth of an empire that would earn Westwood the reputation that continues to sell op-eds and exhibition tickets to this day: 'the Queen of Punk'. But where exactly does this epithet come from, and why is it so wrong?
Westwood was well and truly entrenched in the world of the Sex Pistols, and to say she had no connection to punkness at all would be unfair. She famously got her foot in the door by clothing Malcolm Mclaren and his band throughout the late seventies. Her styles were lifted directly from the underground nightclubs and venues where the musicians of the movement performed; "rips and dirt, safety pins, zips, slogans, and hairstyles." She knew a lot of punks for about five years in the seventies, but her dramatic pivot towards the more demure and ethereal re-imaginations that she is most known for today -- both in brand policy and style -- has been well documented. Clothes for Heroes: The Punk Fashions of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren by Simon Easton delves more deeply into the opportunistic attitude of the middle-class Westwood during her time in London (not working-class as both she and others have claimed, she attended Harrow and after dropping out lived on her fathers generous allowance while she tried selling hand-made jewellery on Portobello Road). Of note is the ways she used working-class efforts at promoting punk ideals to sell her own products. She was always an exceptionally good grifter: exhibiting SCUM manifesto graffiti alongside bondage gear, using the post-war workwear aesthetic while pricing items for upper-class metropolitans, calling for British working-class independence but producing pieces in underpaying Thai and Romanian factories. You can generously attribute these acts to ironic genius, but there's no irony in charging designer prices for pin-pieces -- or, indeed, actively discouraging stylists from pitching pieces to black clients.
Westwood's designs for the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen. Image credit: Mirrorpix/Getty Images
To claim that Vivienne herself (or, indeed, her brand) was punk is a misnomer: Westwood was a capitalist, and a very successful one at that. Westwood herself admitted this: in a 2011 interview with the Guardian she said that “the punk movement [was] just a fashion that became a marketing opportunity for people”. And she was right. Even the most lenient of gatekeepers would have a hard time arguing that a woman awarded Dame status after calling the monarchy an “asset” to British society should be regarded as any sort of threat to the establishment. And, regardless of Westwood's personal affiliations, a punk designer "brand" is in itself an obvious oxymoron; like a communist monopoly or a democratic dictatorship. So why are we so set on pretending otherwise?
Amidst the all the hub-bub surrounding cultural appropriation in the fashion world, it's remarkable that mainstream media has yet to criticise Westwood's commodification of the punk subculture into a bourgeois trend.
Defining punk is a potentially arduous task, but Wikipedia suggests the grand gist is as follows: "Punk political ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views." Much of punk's original visual vernacular - safety pins, ripped clothes, patchwork -- were the direct result of anti-corporatism and the rejection of mid-century consumerism. Your clothes would get ruined, and instead of buying a new outfit, you would simply fix the ones you already owned -- messily and overtly, making it clear you were simply not interested in participating in the capitalist mores of your own Western society. The DIY ethos of the movement was born out of a desire to abandon fashion altogether.
The answer to why we continue to claim that a conglomerate brand like Westwood's could successfully embody the essence of such a movement is two-fold: firstly and foremost, 'punk' is an exceptionally safe legacy to leave. The punk movement was not politically successful; the eighties were a notoriously conservative era in both British and American history and it's fair to say the anti-government, anti-establishment manifestos of the previous decade did little to abate the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. It was, however, a cultural success, producing an immediately recognisable visual vocabulary of 'otherness', of the desire to appear rather than be rebellious. Punk therefore became a genuinely unthreatening marketing tool: an original visual policy whose proponents did very little to further their proclaimed revolutionary goals, yet were still enthusiastic consumers of fashion-as-identity. People actually threatening governments during the seventies and eighties were not dressing up in tartan and leather, but the overt visualness of those who were faffing about in nightclubs shouting about the proletariat has created an ideal marketing tools for brands like Westwood and beyond. For Westwood to have attached herself so tightly onto the 'punk' label is, in many ways, genius: the indelible visual mark left on Western culture by punk allows for massive conglomerate brands to appear countercultural while participating in all the traditional capitalist mechanisms of the fashion industry.
Image credit: Pascal le Segretain/Getty Images
Westwood herself indulged in the same fantasies: she put herself in a bird cage to protest Julian Assange's imprisonment, hosted an ABBA dance party as a strike against fracking, wore alarmist t-shirts to fashion shows. These are harmless gestures that complement Westwood's image as 'cool aunt who cares about the world' but, like the punk movement itself, have zero net impact on the policies her brand profits from pretending to protest. Her misguided belief that fashion can make an environmental and political difference was unwavering and likely genuine, in the same way that Banksy probably thought his mural in Palestine really caused a stir in the Knesset. There is nothing wrong with an artist actually believing their art is going to change the world -- although one is reminded of Vonnegut's Vietnam War pie analogy -- he real issue lies at with the institutions so eager to promote the argumentum ad verecundiam of Westwood's supposed punkness.
This leads us to the second part of our answer to the question "why are so willing to legitimise the idea that Westwood is punk?". In a world where political movements are often reduced to aesthetics and meaningless gestures (from the black squares on Instagram during the BLM protests to anarcho-primitivist designs ending up on Shein under the label of 'cottagecore'), the adoption of 'radical' visual identities is becoming more and more appealing. Artistic institutions like Vogue or the MET have much to gain by appearing as the champions of articles calling Westwood the "provocateur of punk" or exhibitions promoting her as part of the "Postmodern Legacy of Punk Style." It allows, much like Westwood herself, for these institutions to appear connected to progressive and non-conformist politics without actually being cornerstones of the concepts being criticised. Of course, it's not like society should be looking to fashion magazines or money-landering galleries as points of morality in the first place -- but we are rapidly approaching an era where the political origins of things like fashions are entirely disconnected from its proponents. Not only is this a creative setback, as it restricts designers from embracing the core principles of the trends they take inspiration from, but it also hints at a broader, more concerning societal shift: the willing commercialisation of authentic political movements.
Cover image credit: Pascal le Segretain/Getty Images