Vivienne Westwood
34 years in fashion
12 November 2004 – 30 January 2005

introduction | Claire Wilcox essay | Robert Bell essay

Vivienne Westwood Watteau ball gown Spring/Summer 1996'Watteau ball gown' Spring/Summer 1996 Victoria and Albert Museum photograph Niall McInerney more detail

Vivienne Westwood, the major retrospective exhibition of the work of the celebrated British fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, will be staged by the National Gallery of Australia in November 2004, following its inaugural showing at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the organiser of the exhibition which was curated by Claire Wilcox. In includes garments, ensembles and accessories from the V&A’s collections and Vivienne Westwood’s own extensive archive of her work, produced from the late 1960s to the present. Westwood is one of Britain’s best known and most admired fashion designers and her work has been an important influence on international fashion for over three decades. She was awarded British Designer of the Year in 1990 and 1991, and in 1992 was honoured with the Order of the British Empire for her outstanding contribution to fashion.

Westwood’s first commercial ventures into clothes were with Malcolm McLaren, with whom she set up a clothes shop, Let it Rock, in London’s Kings Road in 1971. Recreating the mood and detail of early 1950s Teddy-boy and Rocker clothes, Westwood began to look to the past for inspiration for clothing that would reflect the present. With later name changes to Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die (1972), SEX (1974), Seditionaries (1976) and, finally, World’s End (1979), Westwood’s and McLaren’s shop became the epicentre for Punk, their slashed t-shirts, rubber clothes, anarchic imagery and bondage details giving visual form to the movement, while McLaren’s group, the Sex Pistols provided the anarchic soundtrack. Later borrowings from the worlds of pornography, sado-masochism and fetishism layered more stylistic influences into the amalgam of their work.

With the inevitable decline of the Punk movement’s power to shock and the absorption of its anti-Establishment imagery into mainstream fashion, Westwood began to direct her interest in the politics and theatricality of dress to the examination of the very idea of Englishness and the forces it has exerted on conventions of dress and sexual politics over the past two hundred years. Ready access to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library and its great collections of dress and costume allowed her to explore historical costume and, from it, to develop a completely new range of clothes that would form her first catwalk collection in 1981. The Pirate collection drew inspiration from historical men’s clothing and became the look for the emergent New Romantics, while providing Westwood with a vastly expanded repertoire of styles of cutting and tailoring, construction, fabric design and manufacture, pattern, colour and texture.

Vivienne Westwood Ensemble from her Spring/Summer 1987 Mini-Crini rangeSarah Stockbridge wearing Vivienne Westwood 'Harris Tweed crown' Harris Tweed Autumn/Winter 1987–88 © Nick Knight 1987 more detail

Westwood’s subsequent collections, Savage (Spring/Summer 1982), Buffalo (Autumn/Winter 1982–83) and Punkature (Spring/Summer 1984), along with the opening of a second shop, Nostalgia of Mud, in 1982 explored the cultures of the Third World that were becoming a visible part of life in multicultural Britain. These collections combined ‘primitivist’ imagery with informal cutting and textile structure, distressed fabrics, folk art patterns and accessories and bizarre juxtapositions of under- and outerwear, corsets and brassières. It brought Westwood’s work into an alignment with the sculptural asymmetry and conscious aesthetic impoverishment of the work of the then emergent Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. However, her satirical orientation and willingness to draw from, and exploit, diverse cultural imagery, differentiates her work from the austerity of that of her Japanese contemporaries.  

The corset emerged from this period as a key element in Westwood’s language of forms, along with other historical body-shaping devices such as the crinoline, the bustle and the elevated shoe. Working in Italy from 1984 to 1986, she developed the crinoline idea as the Mini-Crini, abbreviating it as a provocative new shape in total contrast to the exaggerated shoulders and narrow hips of the prevailing style of ‘power dressing’. Drawing also from the conventions of men’s tailoring and using indigenous British fabrics such as Harris Tweed and a variety of Scottish tartans, Westwood presented a completely new silhouette and wearer ‘attitude’, recalling the way that Christian Dior’s celebrated 1947 New Look had reinvented the shape of the postwar woman. Indeed, Westwood acknowledges Dior’s continuing influence on her work in her recurrent series of strictly-tailored and elaborately-cut suits and evening gowns that revisit the formal glamour of mid-twentieth century Hollywood film star outfits.

Her Time Machine collection (Autumn/Winter 1998–99) fused Dior’s French elegance with British aristocratic dress conventions, Westwood stating that “I am never more happy than when I parody the British in the context of a classical perspective”.1 Her later Anglomania collection (Autumn-Winter 1993/4) explored this theme in more depth with mini-kilts, complex outfits and grand gowns in a dazzling variety of specially-created tartans and tweeds combined in theatrical Scottish themes. This can be seen in the most important work in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Westwood outfits: the celebrated tartan Wedding ensemble designed for her Anglomania collection.

Westwood’s dialogue with the past intensified in her work from the mid-1980s, reaching back to the Tudor period in her Cut and Slash men’s and women’s collections (Spring/Summer 1991), with their machine-slashed and frayed denim, silk and knitted wool layers revealing unexpected colour and pattern when worn. In the Portrait collection (Autumn/Winter 1990–1), her most opulent to date, Westwood drew inspiration from the Wallace Collection of eighteenth century French paintings and decorative arts assembled in the nineteenth century. Her deconstructed and pared-back interpretations of dress styles as diverse as the coquettish sack-back dresses depicted in Watteau’s paintings of the 1720s or Boucher’s shepherdesses’ corsets bring the dress codes of the Enlightenment into the new light of contemporary manners and attitudes.

Vivienne Westwood Stamped leather stiletto platform shoes Spring-Summer 1994
'Stamped leather stiletto platform shoes' Spring-Summer 1994 Purchased 1995 with funds donated by Eva and Marc Besen through the Besen Foundation National Gallery of Australia Canberra  more detail

Inspired by the seventeenth century French essayist, La Rochefoucault, she revisited this theme in her Spring/Summer 1996 collection, Les Femmes ne Connaissent pas toute leur Coquetterie (‘Women do not understand the full extent of their coquettishness’) with body extensions such as padded busts and hips and metal cage bustles creating an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that took some of her designs close to the realm of the unwearable. Others however, such as the sumptuous, strapless sack-back Watteau evening dress of tumbling green and lilac silk taffeta (famously modelled by Linda Evangelista), brought these exaggerations together in an unmistakably contemporary statement. A later collection, Café Society (Spring/Summer 1994), again explored the limits of clothing form in a homage to the corseted, S-shaped silhouettes of the English-born Charles Worth and son, Jean-Philippe Worth, couturiers working in late nineteenth century Paris, whose extravagant designs defined the belle époque.

Claire Wilcox notes ‘In Westwood’s clothes, sexuality is determined by sensation. …[her] intention is arousal, both physical and mental, and to instill the wearer with the confidence that clothes bring not only private and public pleasure but also an increased awareness through dressing up.’2 In her interpretations of historical dress, Westwood has continued to emphasise the idea of constriction as a way to define the body and its movement and to direct posture. From her early bondage trousers, corsets and bodices to her highly structured tailoring and more recent, looser and deconstructed cutting, she draws attention to the figure through exaggeration and distortion of the body shape. A confident wearer of her clothes will find that with these techniques, Westwood has found a way to theatricalise arousal and eroticise power, while celebrating skill and the craft and history of materials. To place such contemporary pleasures in the context of history and cultural interchange with wit and panache continues to be Vivienne Westwood’s unique contribution to fashion and design.


Robert Bell
Senior Curator Decorative Arts and Design
This essay was first published in The World of Antiques and Art August 2004- February 2005, pg 14- 16.

1 David Bernardi ‘Vivienne Westwood’ Flash Art (Jan/Feb 1992) p.161.2 Claire Wilcox ‘Vivienne Westwood: 34 years in fashion’ Vivienne Westwood, London: V & A Publications 2004 p.30.