Remembering Vivienne Westwood: ‘The rebel who was never without a cause’

Jess Cartner-Morley recalls meeting the anti-establishment fashion designer and political activist who shaped punk culture and street style

Dame Vivienne Westwood was a very British kind of genius. She was as down to earth as she was flamboyant, a former primary school teacher who came to shape punk culture.

Her clothes were bracingly modern – rips and safety pins, latex and androgyny – but steeped in a love of history. (She had a particular weakness for kilts and corsets.) Her clothes were worn by everyone from Theresa May to Chrissie Hynde, from Princess Eugenie to Pharrell Williams.

She was a rebel, but never without a cause, working tirelessly to raise awareness of the climate emergency many years before it was fashionable.

The last time I had lunch with Westwood, a couple of years ago, she wore a chic silk scarf at her throat, which she fastened with an Extinction Rebellion badge. She was immaculately made up, and ate pizza with a knife and fork, popping the daintiest pieces into her mouth so as not to smudge her bright coral lipstick.

I was supposed to be interviewing her about her fashion legacy, but she was not remotely interested in discussing clothes. Instead, she fixed me with a steady, birdlike gaze that brooked no interruption and talked passionately in her dry Derbyshire lilt about the inequity of modern capitalism, and of the threat posed by populist politicians to progress in protecting the environment.

Vivienne Westwood at an Extinction Rebellion demonstration outside the London headquarters of BP, protesting crimes against the climate in the Papua rainforest, October 2019.
Vivienne Westwood at an Extinction Rebellion demonstration outside the London headquarters of BP, protesting crimes against the climate in the Papua rainforest, October 2019. Photograph: Ki Price/Getty Images

Westwood’s heart had moved on from fashion in the last decade of her life, which she devoted to political causes. But fashion never fell out of love with Vivienne Westwood.

As one of the chief architects of punk, she was the fairy godmother of how every subculture since has used clothes to define its tribe. That streetwear has leapfrogged haute couture to become the leading edge of the global fashion industry owes a great deal to a seamstress from Glossop, Derbyshire who partnered with her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren, to open a tiny shop on King’s Road in London in 1971.

The shop tore through two initial identities – Let It Rock sold Teddy Boy looks, while Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die pivoted to a rocker aesthetic – before it found fame as Sex in 1974.

Westwood’s genius was to capture the energy and iconoclastic spirit of punk, and give it a visual expression. Westwood’s clothes were an explainer to the world which showed what punk was. Bondage trousers were a two-fingered salute to polite society. Safety pins were a celebration of anarchy and flux. Costumey historical flourishes were a rejection of the establishment narrative that capitalism was the route to progress for everyone. The Sex Pistols showed the world what punk sounded like, Westwood showed the world what it looked like.

Amid the tortured souls of punk, Westwood carved out her own path, one that was full of humour, beauty and joy. Her clothes – like her worldview – were anti-establishment, but never nihilistic. They were deliberately off-kilter – partly by dint of being ahead of their time – but they were always elegant.

Her Pirates collection of 1981, the first to be shown at London fashion week, celebrated a dandy aesthetic that presaged the glamorous androgyny not just of the New Romantics, but of Harry Styles. Her Portraits collection, a decade later, put corsets and pearls back in fashion for the first time since the 18th century – three decades later, teenage girls are still saving up for iconic Vivienne Westwood gold-orbed pearl chokers.

There was not a dull moment in Westwood’s five-decade career. She was invited to Buckingham Palace to be awarded royal honours twice – in 1992, when she was given an OBE, and in 2006 when she was made a dame – and went knickerless both times. (On the second occasion, however, she declined to twirl for the cameras.) She told reporters that she simply preferred not to wear underwear when wearing a dress. But the anti-establishment spirit of her decision to go commando seemed simply too perfect a vignette of clothes-as-theatre to have been a mere accident.

A true original, Westwood was impossible to pigeonhole. She said to me when we had our last lunch that “I’ve always been a rebel … punk was a protest, [the clothes] said we don’t accept your taboos, we don’t accept your hypocritical life.”

Vivienne Westwood with Andreas Kronthaler on the runway during the Vivienne Westwood womenswear fall/winter 2022-2023 show at Paris Fashion Week, March 2022.
Vivienne Westwood with Andreas Kronthaler on the runway during the Vivienne Westwood womenswear fall/winter 2022-2023 show at Paris Fashion Week, March 2022. Photograph: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

But in an industry where exciting new talents burn out quicker than matchsticks, she built a fully independent fashion label which has avoided bankruptcies and buyouts, and employs hundreds of staff. And for all her countercultural, defiantly anti-traditional image, she lived that most old-fashioned of lives, a happily married one, for 30 years since marrying Andreas Kronthaler, an Austrian 25 years her junior whom she met while teaching at art school in Vienna. The couple were long a familiar sight around Clapham, where they lived in the same beautifully restored Queen Anne home for more than 20 years.

Three months ago, Westwood was noticeably absent from her Paris fashion week show. The collection has for some years been designed by Kronthaler, but she remained figurehead and muse, and each show would end with her husband presenting Westwood with a bouquet and taking her hand for a joint bow.

Her absence this time prompted concern for her health, but news came down the rumour mill that the designer had decided to skip Paris fashion week in order to join an XR protest march in London. This explanation was entirely plausible, being very much aligned with Westwood’s fashion week priorities.

For the past decade, her catwalk shows have been headlined by Climate Emergency slogan T-shirts, along with protests against austerity, fracking, private land ownership and the protection of rainforests.

For all her apparent eccentricity, Westwood had a very clear-eyed view of what mattered in life – and she knew that it wasn’t clothes. She had moved on from fashion long ago, but fashion will be in thrall to Westwood for a long time to come.


Jess Cartner-Morley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Saturday interview: Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood virtually invented punk and picked up her OBE from the Queen wearing no knickers. Now 70, she has no intention of slowing down. She spoke to Stuart Jeffries

Stuart Jeffries

03, Dec, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Dame Vivienne Westwood: fashion designer dies aged 81
Iconoclastic British designer rose to prominence by outfitting the Sex Pistols as punk took off in the 1970s

Alyx Gorman and Sian Cain

30, Dec, 2022 @7:52 AM

Article image
'Punk is a McDonald's brand': Malcolm McLaren's son on burning £5m of items
Joe Corré and his mother, Vivienne Westwood, to light a pyre of rare memorabilia on Saturday in protest over punk ‘conning the young’

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

24, Nov, 2016 @7:06 PM

Article image
Vivienne Westwood: her life and career – in pictures
A look at the famous fashion designer’s greatest moments after her death at the age of 81

Greg Whitmore

29, Dec, 2022 @9:39 PM

Article image
Malcolm McLaren's son to burn £5m of punk memorabilia
Joe Corré will destroy clothes in response to Punk London, an event he claims is endorsed by the Queen

Tim Jonze

16, Mar, 2016 @2:28 PM

Article image
A job at Vivienne Westwood’s shop made me a Sex Pistol | Glen Matlock
Glen Matlock went into the late fashion designer’s store looking for a pair of shoes and found a career in music and rebellion

Glen Matlock

01, Jan, 2023 @10:30 AM

Article image
Anarchy! The McLaren Westwood Gang review – scrappy tribute to Sex Pistols mischief-maker
Phil Strongman uses archive interview footage to place McLaren and punk in the tradition of anarchism, situationalism and pop art

Peter Bradshaw

15, Sep, 2016 @9:35 PM

Article image
Jordan, the face of punk: 'The things I wore made people apoplectic'
She was the rubber-knickered peroxide bombshell who put the sex into the Pistols. Now she’s written a memoir of her years causing outrage at the heart of punk

Paul Tierney

23, Apr, 2019 @1:12 PM

Article image
'I wanted to be a living work of art': why Jordan is the queen of punk rock style
Adam Ant claimed she invented punk, with a take on clothes that still shocks more than 40 years later. Now, as Maisie Williams plays her in Danny Boyle’s new series Pistol, Jordan’s story is finding a new audience

Lauren Cochrane

06, Apr, 2021 @7:11 AM

Article image
Vivienne Westwood: ‘We’ll all be migrants soon’
The fashion designer and activist on the threat of climate change, parenting with Malcolm McLaren and twin towers conspiracy theories

Rebecca Nicholson

20, Sep, 2015 @5:00 PM