‘Activist fashion designer’ is not an oxymoron. In fact, it’s what we’ve come to expect from fashion’s great punk doyenne, Vivienne Westwood.
Westwood’s passionate stand on issues such as the environment, human rights, and corruption can be traced back to her involvement in, and influence on the punk era of the 1970s. She was a 22 year old primary school teacher when she met Malcolm McLaren, and under what some say was his domineering influence, they invented punk fashion. They opened a shop on Kings Road, London, in 1971 which they gave various names. In 1974, it was called ‘SEX’ and sold bondage and fetish gear. In 1976, they changed the name of the shop to ‘Seditionaries’ and became notorious for their torn t-shirts emblazoned with images of naked cowboys, swastikas, and the Queen with a safety pin through her nose and ‘God Save the Queen’ written above her head, as well as Tartan fabrics, spiked dog collars and Doc Marten boots. All their fashion reflected punk politics, a reaction to Great Britain’s economic crisis at the time. Punk was an anti- establishment, anti-authority, anti-conformist, anti-racist (though not anti-Asian!), anti-corruption movement that was sometimes about anarchy. The Sex Pistols song Anarchy in the UK was released in 1976, and a movement of anarchist punks was spawned. However, generally punk rockers were political in nature.
McLaren and Westwood split in 1983, but the whirlwind heyday of 1970’s punk had made it’s mark on Vivienne Westwood. Fast forward to 1992 and Westwood receives an OBE for her services to British fashion. Even as she attends the ceremony for the Queen’s Honours, the ultimate symbol of British establishment, she wears no underwear and even twirls her skirt for photographers afterwards to give them proof that she can still make a punk statement and give the establishment the finger. In 2006, the Queen awarded Westwood a DBE making her Dame Vivienne Westwood. Clearly by the new millenium, the establishment was celebrating her rebellious antics.
When punk fashion went mainstream, Westwood steered away from it, pioneering the ‘Pirate’ look for her first catwalk show in 1981. She has had shows in Paris most years since then, and with one of her bridal gowns appearing in the first Sex in the City movie, it might have seemed that Westwood had sold out to the conformist mainstream she rebelled against for so many years. Not so. In 2012 she launched Climate Revolution at the London Paralympics closing ceremony. Of the not-for-profit organisation, she says “The main message of Climate Revolution is that climate change is caused by the rotten financial system we’ve got, designed to create poverty and rip off any profits for a small amount of rich people. Meanwhile, it destroys the earth.” Her manifesto states “the world is controlled by 1% who are in power, and they preach consumption, war and taking us into disaster.”
Westwood has scaled back her clothing production choosing to concentrate on quality instead of quantity with the catch-cry “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last.” She states “We are so conformist; nobody is thinking. We are all sucking up stuff; we have been trained to be consumers, and we are all consuming far too much.”
Other causes Westwood supports are the Green Party, Anti-fracking in the UK, Scottish Independence, and the civil rights group Liberty. She designed t-shirts with “I am Julian Assange” written on them in support of the Wikileaks founder, and a range of bags for an Ethical Fashion Africa campaign in Nairobi. She famously made a video for animal activist organisation PETA, while naked in the shower to promote vegetarianism, stating avoiding meat preserves the world’s water supplies.
Vivienne Westwood has stood by her non-conformist punk ideals and been uncompromising in her fashion design and political stance. For anyone who lacks the courage to live as authentically as her, she offers some encouragement:
“The sexiest people are thinkers.”