Throughout her career, Westwood has appreciated and revived silhouettes, fabrics and colours that others have overlooked. In her A/W 1987-88 collection, she used natural fabrics at a time when most fashion was driven by ease of care and wear. To the heathery mix of Tattershall check, red barathea, velvet and Harris Tweed, she brought in a gentle parody of establishment styles the clothes of boarding schools, royalty and country wear—giving them a new lease of life.
With Harris Tweed Westwood returned to traditional English cutting. She said, ‘This was one of those cardinal points when you stop doing one thing and start doing something else. It was a change of direction—I wanted to make things that fitted.’ This winter version of the Mini-Crini in red barathea imbues the fabric with flirtatious weightlessness. The short, double-breasted jacket was inspired by the princess coats worn by the Queen as a girl. The curved collar and pocket flaps are trimmed with a dress velvet that resembles ermine; it was so expensive that it could only be used sparingly. Curving in at the waist and then smoothly outlining the hips, the ‘Princess’ jacket sits poised on top of the bell-shape skirt, counterbalancing the flirtatious, swaying crini.
Westwood’s methodology—research, observation, an ‘archivist’s exactitude’—had been established early in her career, and unlike many designers she was willing to explain her creative processes, confident that although she would be copied, she would always be ahead. ‘Fashion design is almost like mathematics. You have to have a vocabulary of ideas, which you have to add to and subtract from in order to come up with an equation that is right for the times. Here I’ve taken the vocabulary of royalty—the traditional British symbols, and used it to my own advantage. I’ve utilized the conventional to make something unorthodox.’
Marie Simon: ‘In recent years it is perhaps Vivienne Westwood who has succeeded in interpreting the pictorial tradition most audaciously, in collections sparkling with idiosyncrasy. Ambassadress of Boucher, Ingres and Tissot in turn, she resurrects the corset, the crinoline and the bustle. Encumbering and feminine symbols of a life of idleness, they had been assumed to be tucked away forever in the catalogues of the history of costume and only displayed in the showcases of museums. Yet here they are again, freshly dusted down, flaunting themselves on the catwalks of the Cour Carrée. “Mini-crinis” and bustles steady the tottering walk of tall, slim girls perched on platform soles and crowned with unruly ringlets. They parade themselves before our astounded eyes, defying logic, time and rationality. For fashion, frivolous and changeable, blithely spins its threads between periods and people. And to gather up and stitch together the scattered pieces, as it saunters on its way, it leaves behind, in Cocteau’s words: History, sitting and plying the needle.’
The title ‘Anglomania’ (A/W 1993-94) referred to the French passion for all things English—literature, language, clothing and even food— that prevailed during the 1780s, when pre-revolutionary, foppish styles were replaced by the plainer English aristocratic look. Westwood’s fascination with English and Scottish traditions—as source of inspiration and subject of parody—was reiterated in Anglomania with mini-kilt tartan ensembles, and for the same collection the Locharron Textile Mill created a special tartan for Westwood called the ‘McAndreas’, after her husband Andreas Kronthaler. In her essay on ‘Anglomania’ in The Englishness of English Dress, Rebecca Arnold wrote of the bravado of Westwood’s approach to tartan, which the designer has utilized more successfully than almost any of her peers: ‘Her designs demand a present that is as dramatic and purposeful as that inhabited by, for example, MacDonnell of Glengarry, painted by Raeburn in the late eighteenth century, in what was itself a wistful mythology of Scottish identity. For Westwood, women can cut just such a dashing and heroic figure as men, in clothes that are just as much about constructing an idealized, theatricalized femininity as they are about representing national identity.’
Starting with Summertime (S/S 2000) and continuing in the collections Winter (A/W 2000-1), Exploration (S/S 2001), Wild Beauty (A/W 2001-2), Nymphs (S/S 2002), Anglophilia (A/W 2002-3) and Street Theatre (S/S 2003), Westwood continued to explore the myriad of ways fabric can fold over the body. She described the process: ‘It’s just getting form by putting fabrics together that do not have the same angle. The fabrics are all at slightly different angles so that they create a form, and the nice thing about it is that it’s the sort of look that we are after—tailored/non-tailored, spontaneous and arty-looking, if you like, and a bit futuristic in the way that the clothes are shaped not necessarily with the purpose of fitting the prominent point. It’s to do with the fact that you do not care about the bust or waist anymore, yet you do have to be aware of them to make sure there is room in the fabric for them. But to give this lively look to the clothes—because it’s incredibly lively-looking and nervous-looking—you are purposely not hitting the crucial body points. The thing about them is that you can wear them without caring at all, and they are just working for you all the time, showing your body—it’s very dynamic. It’s amazing, even off it looks dynamic. It’s augmenting body movements in some way, carrying them on after they have finished.’
One of the most characteristic aspects of Westwood’s design is its historicism. ‘I take something from the past which has a vitality that has never been exploited—like the crinoline—and get very intense. You get so involved with it that in the end you do something original because you overlay your own ideas. So there’s your own individuality, your own particular way of looking, and what you see cements it all together. Things are never quite as they were, so even if you tried to copy a traditional garment exactly you couldn’t because you’d have to use a modern way of making it. The idea is something that comes with the form, and it grows as you do.’
Westwood’s technique can also be compared to that of Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975); both share the same way of working in the round on a dressmaker’s dummy rather than from sketches, and of employing geometric principles in their cutting. Westwood said, ‘Art must be anchored in technique; this means the manipulation of materials—in my case my materials are essentially the human body and cloth. It is my job to make the cloth give expression to the body of a human being. One must constantly judge and manage the detail in terms of the general effect one is trying to create so that the form is the idea: a beautiful form is a beautiful idea—this is design.’
Vivienne Westwood has said ‘I think my clothes allow someone to be truly an individual’ and wears her own clothes with panache—usually with a silk handkerchief from Tie Rack round her neck and often an antique spider brooch. Her clothes are characterized by an apparent complexity but, complimented recently on a green gingham blouse which lay in folds and drapes across the torso, she unfastened it to show that it was simply made of squares. Her use of familiar, often modest materials married with dynamic structure allows us to see the potential of fabric and form as if for the first time. Like the green gingham blouse, Vivienne Westwood’s clothes seem fresh and surprising; they offer an alternative; they do seem heroic.
̶ I went to a Vivienne Westwood show in London.
̶ That’s a hot ticket!
̶ How’d you get it?
̶ Kassia Ibarra. She’s a friend.
̶ Did you like the show?
̶ I did. Harris Tweed. In particular a bodice, cape and skirt on a ravishing redhead.
̶ I like Vivienne Westwood. I like her quirky originality.
̶ Yes, it’s refreshing.
Thursday you came home to find my birthday presents on your bed: an excess of Anglomania. Unable to decide what jacket to choose, I’d bought you three Vivienne Westwoods. I hoped you’d interpret it not as a sign of my insecurity but as a token of my knowing what would suit you: In charcoal and white, a pinstriped twill with an asymmetric hem and peaked lapels; in navy denim, a military jacket with a double-breasted placket and gold-striped cuffs; in black leather, a biker jacket with variable fastenings. You had the grace to interpret as haste my panicky indecision.
Thursday evening, at The Flask, we reminisced in laughter with Ariane and her Nicaraguan lover, moving on to share present news with equal good humour. In your new biker jacket, your white jeans and striped top, you were the coolest incarnation of chic: Was the black-and-white look your way of teaching me not to go over the top? Friday you wore the charcoal-and-white pinstripe to work and in the evening, at your surprise party at Gram’s, you were a hit in your military jacket and zip-pocket pants, your hair slicked back, braided ponytail wrapped into a bun: Was it you way of teaching me that one can pull anything off, provided the inner and the outer work in harmony?
Yves Saint Laurent
Models and Dogs