Anyone who thinks that rebellious music groups such as The Sex Pistols and The Ramones determined the era of punk is wrong. The one who really left a mark on that period is British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Together with her then partner Malcolm McLaren, she was the one who came up with the striking dress style with the safety pins, bicycle chains and torn fabrics. Gillian Greenwood’s television documentary “Vivienne Westwood” (1990) looks back on the life and career of the eccentric fashion queen and looks over her shoulder as she works on her latest collection. Westwood herself tells her story and explains where she gets her inspiration from.
What stands out about Westwood is her orange-red hair. Once, in 1971, she donned a white spiky haircut: her first fashion statement. Until meeting McLaren – a friend of her brother – in 1965, she was a good young mother. It is he who kindles the fire in her. The fire that has always been there, but which just had to be poured some oil on. She leaves her husband and moves with McLaren to London, where they lead a bohemian life. They open a shop where they sell clothing from the fifties. Soon Westwood gets behind the sewing machine to make his own designs. Contemporary and provocative. Spiky collars, razors and bondage elements were suddenly fashion items. Garments were torn and threaded together and provided with rebellious texts. McLaren and Westwood liked to bump into bourgeoisie, established order, authority and consumer society: punk was born through their clothing.
Only when the punk craze is over, in the early eighties, and her relationship with McLaren is over, Westwood begins to see herself as a fashion designer. She continues to develop her style. Her clothing is characterized by the use of classic and traditional fabrics and garments, but in a contemporary form. Her famous fashion lines are “Pirates” (1981), “Savage” (1982), “Buffalo Girls” (1983) – she dubbed her work from the later 1980s “The Pagan Years”. There are plenty of examples of her striking clothing in the documentary; fragments from fashion shows, but also atmospheric videos with models. Fashion connoisseurs, unfortunately not mentioned by name, place Westwood’s designs under the heading “art, yet wearable.” The contributions of the designer herself and McLaren are very valuable, but a few more stakeholders could have been interviewed to complete the picture. Westwood also does not show the back of her tongue, so there is always some distance. Although she speaks clearly about her past and her motives, she never gets really personal.
The film is also somewhat dated. At the time of this documentary, Westwood was still strongly against the British royal family; she has now been knighted as “Dame Vivienne” and members of the Royal family (Princess Eugenie, daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and Camilla Parker Bowles, wife of Prince Charles) wear her designs. Although it is again typical of Westwood that during the ceremony in which she entered the Order of the British Empire (OBE) she did not wear underpants and was only too happy to be photographed. The documentary “Vivienne Westwood” is worth watching for anyone interested in fashion, art and the punk era. Especially her work is discussed extensively. The eccentric British seems less candid about herself, which makes this film insightful but distant and not as deep as you would like. To complement this film, check out Howard Brull’s “Vivienne Westwood’s London” (2011).