My Shaved Lady
The rebellious, irreverent, fairy godmother of punk used to dye her tangled, long mane orange before she decided to cut it all off for a good cause. Lady Vivienne Westwood published her memoir this past October and was judged as contradictory by those who fail to understand that this is precisely her greatest act of rebellion.
TEXT: Bárbara Espejo
Gordon and Dora Swire were married two weeks after the start of World War II. Two years later, in April 1941, their daughter Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in Tintwistle, Derbyshire, England. Her early years were spent in the war’s dark shadow, which didn’t seem to harm her innate creative potential. As a very young girl, she realized that she possessed a precocious and keen visual memory, as well as an exceptional talent for crafts. At five, she made her first pair of shoes, and around the same time, she embraced her rebellious nature. In the store where her father worked, she discovered a calendar with an image of Christ on the cross. She asked her cousin Eileen what it meant and that’s how the budding rebel learned about the crucifixion. “I could not believe that there were people in the world who could do this. I became Derbyshire’s only five-year-old freedom fighter! Dedicated to opposing persecution!” says the designer, whose memoir was released at the end of last year and still has people talking.
Her recent book is also a reaction. The designer once described an unauthorized biography – Jane Mulvagh’s An Unfashionable Life – as “a lot of rubbish” and swore that she would never write about herself. However, Andreas Kronthaler – her third and current husband, 25 years her junior and once her student – insisted that it was the right time to tell her side of the story. Vivienne Westwood was written with the help of her friend Ian Kelly, and the cover depicts the designer sitting up straight, pale as always, wearing an elegant and unique outfit. Her lips are dark, and her hair is white, no longer long tangles of orange. She shaved her head to support environmental protection without overtly explaining the connection between the planet’s wellbeing and her shorn locks. It’s more like a call for attention, an example of renunciation. She has also protested alongside PETA and in support of various ecologically minded causes, which has made her a target for critics over and over again.
Westwood became a punk because
she thought it would allow her to
“put a spoke in the system in some way.”
Vivienne Swire began her professional life as a teacher, which is what she was doing when she met her first husband. The 21 year old made her own wedding dress, and the couple had a child. When this union fell apart after three years, Vivienne Westwood kept her husband’s name and their son, Benjamin. Near the end of her marriage, she met her brother’s friend, Malcolm McLaren. She thought him a bit rude but was intrigued by his eccentricity, his cosmopolitan perspective and his desire to see the world. The former art student introduced her to political activism, invented a new look for her and encouraged a rebelliousness that materialized more powerfully than anything in her life to that point.
When Westwood became pregnant, McLaren’s unusual grandmother Rose gave her money for an abortion. But the budding designer became distracted along the way, buying a vest and a matching piece of fabric that she later used to make a skirt. And so Joseph was born. Together, Westwood and McLaren focused on fashion. “I neglected my children because I had to dedicate myself to fashion. At the time, I though of fashion as a crusade,” says Westwood with a tinge of regret. But back then, in the late 1960s, the couple believed that certain outfits could “fight against the lies of British society.” Westwood became a punk because she thought it would allow her to “put a spoke in the system in some way.” McLaren and Westwood learned how to cut and sew using cast-offs from the 1950s, until they began making their own creations inspired by bikers, prostitutes and fetishists. Chains, spikes and rips, S&M gear mixed with plaid, lace and Victorian undergarments, reinventing another series of British traditions.
They intentionally shocked the public when they opened the store Let It Rock, which was later renamed SEX, then Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die and, finally, Seditionaries. McLaren also became the manager of the Sex Pistols when the band began to shop at his store, appearing onstage wearing Westwood’s creations. The store at 430 King’s Road became a mecca for punks, who would also throw rocks at the windows on occasion.
In time, Westwood felt that the spirit of punk was missing the mark, that there were no ideas supporting the movement and that insurrection wasn’t necessary. She became tired of her husband’s abuse and – she would later say – his lack of perspective. The marriage and partnership came to an end. They presented their final collection together in 1984, and Westwood left the edginess of the punk aesthetic to parody the style of the more privileged classes.
Her third and current husband, Andreas Kronthaler, insisted that it was the right time to tell her side of the story.
Critics Come, Critics Go
From the runway, Westwood has critiqued international politics with models striding down the catwalk bearing signs decrying Guantanamo. She supports animal rights and, more recently, has begun to go after excessive consumerism. As a result, she has made herself a target, with critics pointing out that she has six stores in London, all of them exclusive. Westwood explains that in order to effect change, you first have to make people feel good: “You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothing.” She further defends herself by suggesting this simple solution: “Instead of buying six things, buy one thing that you really like.” And she makes fun of her adversaries by saying that they’re welcome to buy that one thing at her store.
By now, Westwood is used to it. Although she’s now more dedicated to promoting her manifesto and its slogan, “No Art, No Progress,” than her clothing, she’s still reproached for having contributed to the Sex Pistols’ anti-monarchy anthem “God Save the Queen,” only to receive the Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace in 1992. What not everyone seems to realize is that even then, Westwood the iconoclast was present: an impertinent photographer discovered that the newly dubbed Lady wasn’t wearing underwear. Westwood laughs, “I met a man who worked with the Queen, and he said she was rather amused by it.”
This is the power of Westwood. Her indefatigable rebelliousness is at the root of what people misunderstand as contradictory behavior. Her revolution and influence lies in not seeing the contradiction in things that some interpret as mutually exclusive. Vivienne Westwood is the simultaneous incarnation of elegance and punk – and that has been her greatest lesson to us. in