Punk Counterpunk

Bee Wilson

Some time in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking. She went to America and dressed the New York Dolls. Together, she and McLaren assembled the Sex Pistols, whom they got to know thanks to SEX, the clothes shop they (McLaren and Westwood) ran on the King’s Road. There is fierce disagreement as to whether Westwood or John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, thought up the title ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – he says it was him; she says it was her – but there is no doubt that she had a powerful influence on the way punks, including Lydon, dressed. She was the first to design T-shirts covered in punk ‘bricolage’, ranging from studs and chains to chicken bones to nipple zips, and she was the one who put a safety pin through the queen’s mouth on a T-shirt. By 1977, teenagers all over the country were copying the look she had started: the spiky hair, the studs, the clothes daubed with antisocial messages. It wasn’t what Westwood had wanted, though. She was hoping for revolution. ‘When I turned round, on the barricades,’ she says in Vivienne Westwood, an autobiography written with Ian Kelly (rather than the usual ghostwritten celebrity tosh), ‘there was no one there. That was how it felt. They were just still pogoing. So I lost interest.’

SEX in 1975.
SEX in 1975.

The prevailing impression of Westwood that we get from the book is of a leader whose people have been a constant disappointment to her. ‘The way I thought about “punk” politics,’ Westwood says now, ‘was this: at the time, we were just becoming aware of these terrible politicians torturing people – I’m thinking of Pinochet, for instance … The idea was that kids would try to put a spoke in the wheel of this terrible killing machine.’ She saw herself as someone who would ‘confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others’. But it turned out that the kids were mainly interested in buying the new rubber skirts and bondage gear from her shop and playing punk rock records. Whoever deserves the credit for the title ‘Anarchy in the UK’, the people listening to the music were not taking the message seriously enough. Few punks got the connection – so obvious to Westwood – between wearing a distressed top featuring a swastika, the word DESTROY and defeating Pinochet. Westwood believed her clothes – which she saw and still sees as her art – were inexorably leading punks towards radical politics. When you put on a punk garment such as a real dog collar, Westwood says, ‘basically you are insulting yourself, but you’re also clearing yourself of all egotism.’ But when she turned round, they were just spitting and jumping. So she moved on.

Moving on is something that happens a lot in Vivienne Westwood. Both her fashion and her politics have changed a great deal since her punk days. Vivienne Westwood clothes are now couture, and huge business, thanks partly to emerging markets in Asia – she is one of the top ten global brands in Japan, along with Disney and Coca-Cola. In China, she is known as Dowager Empress of the West. The 2013 Vivienne Westwood catwalk show in Paris Fashion Week lasted 12 minutes, had a budget of £200,000 and featured clothes worth a million pounds. As in her punk days, Westwood has tremendous influence on the way thousands of men and women choose to dress. Yet, once again, her followers are a disappointment. They read about Westwood’s designs in the glossy magazines and buy the handbags and jewellery and shoes, which is where the real money is in couture. (The catwalk shows are a loss-making front, necessary if you want to give your £490 Cameo ‘day bag’ a backstory.) But they fail to make the connections. They don’t see how her work in fashion ties in with the greater cause of climate change: they just keep buying more and more clothes, too much of it cheap stuff, unlike her own designs. The thought of a T-shirt from Primark appals her. ‘It’s like Andreas says’ (Andreas Kronthaler is Westwood’s Austrian husband): ‘If people made real choices and only bought beautiful things, that’s Climate Revolution too, because buying less and choosing well wouldn’t hurt the environment so much.’

It all began in her childhood. She was born in 1941 in the village of Tintwistle in Derbyshire, the oldest of three children. Her parents, both of them good-looking working-class, met on the dance floor and were more interested in their children making things than reading. They seem to have endowed Vivienne with extraordinary confidence from an early age. She wandered about in the Derbyshire countryside, climbing trees and jumping streams while never once, she insists, wishing she had the ‘freedoms of a boy. I liked being me, and I happened to be a girl. I wanted to be a hero and saw no reason why a girl couldn’t be one.’ It’s an idea in which her whole family seems to have colluded. In the morning after her parents got up, she would go into their room, lie in their bed and read while her younger sister, Olga, fetched her ‘drinks and snacks’. Then she would move to the sofa, where she carried on reading while her mother swept and cleaned around her. Despite the fact that she so disapproved of Vivienne’s reading that she once paid her to destroy her library card, her mother didn’t disturb her. ‘You might as well leave her there: our Vivienne’s in her glory,’ she’d say to Olga.

At school, too, Vivienne saw herself as heroic, a ‘kind of champion, even as a little girl’. The supervising teacher would come into the lunch room each day and say: ‘Stand up whoever was talking.’ One day, Vivienne decided to test ‘the rhetoric, as it were’. When the teacher came in, she stood up and said, ‘It was me,’ even though she hadn’t in fact been talking.

I stood up alone, feeling safe as I knew Mrs Booth liked me, and enjoying the glamour of the self-righteous. Ridiculous. But also, I thought everyone else was going to own up as well. I really did. Like in Spartacus. ‘It was me,’ ‘It was me.’ But no one stood up. Mrs Booth did praise me for standing up, I remember – I knew she would. But I also recall thinking what a farce sticking your neck out can be.

Her sense of her own heroism came at least in part from a fierce conviction that she was ‘good at making’. In the years of wartime and afterwards, being good at making could have considerable impact on how you lived. Although there wasn’t much money at home (her father worked in a munitions factory during the war, her mother in a cloth factory), Vivienne was never aware of wartime restrictions, for example, on the use of elastic. Both her parents came from generations of grocers and shoemakers and were good with their hands: Gordon made holly wreaths to sell at Christmas and Dora was a ‘demon’ knitter and very ‘particular’ about making all her children’s outfits. Vivienne inherited their dexterity. ‘Honestly, at the age of five, I could have made a pair of shoes.’ Once, she showed the other children at school how to make a fairground scene involving swingboats out of cardboard and matchboxes. She and her parents also had a strong sense of mutual pride. She was proud of her father, because he was attractive and sporty and sociable and ‘just the best possible dad’. And she always knew her parents were proud of her – proud when she was ‘little’ and proud of ‘what I became’.

One of Westwood’s sons recalls that Dora and Gordon ‘hated punk and they hated Malcolm’. Gordon was taken aback by her support of the IRA, and the way she dressed her two children up in leather and said ‘fuck’ in front of them. ‘I’m really shocked at that, Vivienne,’ Gordon would say. Yet Dora lent her the £100 that enabled her to start the shop, and both parents were always there, offering ‘our Vivienne’ practical support while she was surrounded with the ‘boxes of studs and pliers … and patterns and scissors and samples’, the raw materials with which she would create the slashed and shocking clothes they so disapproved of.

Vivienne met Malcolm McLaren in 1965, in her parents’ Ruislip post office, the latest in a series of post offices they ran on the outskirts of London, having left Derbyshire in 1958. She was now a qualified primary school teacher with a two-year-old son, Ben, from a failed marriage to Derek Westwood, a Mod who ran dance halls and bingo halls and later became an airline pilot. Westwood was handsome: ‘You have to be interesting-looking to capture my attention!’ He may have captured it, but he didn’t hold it. She left him months after Ben was born and was now back with her mum and dad, living in the flat above the post office, making jewellery that she sold on the Portobello Road. Her brother, Gordon, started bringing one of his friends from art school round to the post office. The friend, who was 19, had curly red hair and used to put talcum powder on his face to accentuate its whiteness. When he opened his mouth he looked to Vivienne like ‘a big red hole in a white face’ but then he started helping her make the jewellery. ‘I was very impressed by his designs. They were very mod.’ Soon they were sleeping together and in 1967, she gave birth to a son, Joe.

A great deal has been written about the partnership, both creative and romantic, between Westwood and McLaren, who died, aged 64, in 2010. McLaren himself – Red Malcolm, as he was known in his art school days – was always keen to make it sound as if he was the dominant party, the great creative genius who changed the world. But, as Westwood tells it, she was a mother figure to him, the kind of mother who sometimes locked her difficult child in his room when he goaded her too much. While they were both developing the radical attitudes that would lead them to set up the shop on the King’s Road, she was also working as a teacher in Brixton to earn the money to pay the rent. She didn’t have time to go to many concerts: she was at home in the evenings with her Singer sewing machine and the boys. There were terrible domestic rows and Malcolm ‘didn’t help at all’ with the children, refusing even to be called ‘dad’. He waited six days after Joe’s birth before he came to visit Vivienne and the baby in hospital. When she occasionally suggested that he might take Joe for a while, he threatened to take the child to Barnardo’s. In 1968, she quit work to look after the children and lived with the boys in a caravan with no running water in a remote part of Wales, foraging for wild vegetables. Malcolm meanwhile was back in London, where after taking part in a student occupation of Croydon Art School with other Situationists, he married a fellow student, who wanted a UK visa. ‘It seems likely,’ Kelly writes, ‘that his ulterior motive was to prove to Vivienne again his mixed feelings about family life.’ Yet, once again, she seemed impervious to the rejection. They were back together selling clothes later that year.

Anyone with an averagely fragile ego would have been unable to take the way McLaren behaved. He was brought up in a North London Jewish family by his grandmother, an eccentric landlady called Rose Corré Isaacs, who didn’t believe in children going to school and was given to pronouncements such as ‘to be bad is good.’ Westwood and McLaren’s son, Joe, who also works in fashion (he founded the lingerie shop Agent Provocateur), was given the surname Corré in honour of Rose. McLaren’s mother, Emily, was a prostitute. Westwood says that the ‘root of all his troubles’ was that he ‘never knew real maternal love as a child’. He displayed a pathological desire to dazzle and insult the world with his brilliance and to disparage the abilities of anyone close to him, Westwood especially. Nothing, however, seems to have been able to dent her hero-image of herself. When they first met, he spent ‘most of his student grant on clothes’ for her, changing the way she dressed from ‘a dolly bird into a chic, confident dresser’. He bought her schoolgirl uniforms from John Lewis and made her wear them with rubberised cotton macs and red tights. But the more he insulted her and dressed her like a prostitute, the more she loved herself. By 1974, they had changed the name of the shop from Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die to SEX, and she was mostly to be seen in fake leather trousers and purple make-up:

I thought I looked like a princess from another planet … I thought I couldn’t look any better. I particularly loved my SEX look: my rubber stockings and the T-shirt with pornographic images and my stilettos and spiky hair … I stopped the traffic in my rubber negligée.

The key to Westwood’s enduring success, apart from her brilliance at ‘making’, seems to be her almost unnatural sense of her own charisma and authority: her sense that wherever she was, those were the barricades at which everyone else should be fighting. At fifty, she admitted that she thought any man who didn’t desire her more than everyone else in the room was ‘mad or stupid’. In 1989, she famously posed for the cover of Tatler dressed as Mrs Thatcher, complete with pearls, cravat and tailored jacket. The power of the image is in the uncanny facial similarity between the two: how can the woman who helped invent punk look so like the Iron Lady? But for Westwood herself, it wasn’t a stretch. All she had to do was ‘put a little doubt’ in her eyes and she looked just like Thatcher. It’s worth dwelling on the implications of this statement: the real Vivienne Westwood looks like a less self-doubting version of Mrs Thatcher.

It was self-confidence that allowed her to leap from safety-pinning the queen’s face on the King’s Road to emulating the monarch’s dress sense on the Paris catwalks. The only person she ever tried to please, she said in 2003, was herself. It didn’t bother her when the business nearly went bankrupt in the mid-1980s. Nor is she now awed by the immense wealth generated by her brand today. ‘Our Vivienne’ was always in her glory, long before the world caught up. In 1987, Westwood did her Harris Tweed collection, inspired by the idea of ‘debutantes going to balls but with a Barbour flung over their ballgown’. She declared herself inspired by pomp and circumstance and Norman Hartnell. John Lydon has attacked the way she turned her back on her punk past, switching to making posh frocks ‘for Ascot’. Seen as part of the larger history of the Dowager Empress, however, the punk years were just one phase in her longer quest to find a more ‘interesting life’ through clothes. In any case, as Westwood herself recognises, the swagger of punk could point in more than one political direction. It could be part of an anarchist rejection of the establishment; or it could be a proto-Thatcherite form of extreme individualism.


The person who was the ‘biggest influence on my life bar none’, she claims, was not Malcolm McLaren but a Canadian called Gary Ness, an impoverished gay art historian and portrait painter who was living in London when they met. It is Ness she credits with giving her the ideas for the historicising tendencies of her work from the 1980s onwards. Inspired by the fashions of the 18th century, she created ‘mini crinis’ and used corsetry to create a kind of cleavage that hadn’t been seen in centuries. Many of her collections in the 1990s seemed to be alluding to the French Revolution and what Kelly calls ‘the empowered women of the first sexual revolution’. Her 1994 collection was called ‘On Liberty’; 1995 was ‘Vive la Cocotte’ and 1997 ‘Vive la Bagatelle’. Some fashion journalists complained that going to her shows was a bit like being given heavy-handed lessons in costume history and revolutionary politics.

Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler (2008).
Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler (2008).

For Ness, the pre-Revolutionary years were the fertile ones; Westwood’s inspiration now came from such aristocratic sources as Sèvres porcelain. Her ‘Watteau dress’, which despite the name was taken from a Boucher portrait of Mme de Pompadour, was made from silks that would have been used at the time. Her ‘spiritual home’ was now the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. Ness egged her on to find her true voice, not as a revolutionary but a counter-revolutionary. ‘The basic idea,’ he once said, ‘is that Rousseau – proto-socialist and godfather of the idea of the “noble savage” – is responsible for the damage that has been done to traditional ideas.’ He schooled Westwood in a rejection of Romanticism and argued for a return to ‘high art’ created by a small, educated elite. Kelly explains that ‘Ness, like many of his generation, saw in the political emancipation of the Age of Revolutions the seeds of decay in Western culture.’ Ness and Westwood together rejected any notion of democratic taste. They adored the idea of the 18th-century salon and met several times a week to discuss ideas, with Ness telling Westwood what to read and Westwood giving him money. They liked to refer to the marketing people as the ‘Marxisting people’, because they paid too much attention to what people wanted.

Thanks to Ness, who died some ten years ago, she no longer had to feel she was alone at the barricades, because she no longer expected to find anyone of worth behind her. Fashion was for ‘an elect’ who understood the connections and recognised the ‘standards of excellence’ of the past. The irony is that, having adopted this position, she went on to achieve a popular success far greater than anything she had enjoyed in the past. By the mid-1990s, she was ‘the most sought-after designer in the world’, according to Kelly. Her Paris collections at that time included ‘Anglomania’, ‘Café Society’ and ‘Storm in a Teacup’, all based on historic, Ness-inspired themes. ‘We made incredible statements in Paris, with Gary’s input, because he did know what he was talking about historically.’ She was also starting to make serious money for the first time. The Marxisting people succeeded in marketing Vivienne Westwood as a brand to Swatch watches and the Littlewoods catalogue. Carlo D’Amario, her Italian business manager, started selling licences for her clothes into Japan, where fashion customers couldn’t get enough of her tweeds and tartans.

This new success also owed something to her relationship with her new husband, Andreas Kronthaler, the son of a Tyrolean blacksmith, whom she met when she was teaching at the Vienna Academy of Applied Arts – she was 48 and he was 23. She invited him to London to work with her and he never left. Kronthaler, unlike McLaren, was happy to support her, rather than to try to dominate. Where McLaren was volatile, Kronthaler is calm. He worked to take her ‘mad ideas’ further. Like Westwood’s mother – with whom he got on famously – he was good at ‘making’. He thought of adding giant false breasts and bustles to one of her collections and asked his blacksmith father to make the cage inside the bustle. He shares her anxiety that clothes should never squash the breasts (loyal customers, including Nigella Lawson, say that Westwood’s clothes accommodate a curvy female form more realistically than those made by many male designers), and once cried when he saw that a piece of clothing in her collection had not been sufficiently well made. ‘I think my first “gift”,’ he remarked, ‘was to help design a summer travelling collection that was so beautifully made and so light you could roll it up, in tiny balls, in vacuum packaging, and it came out looking perfect.’

It sounds as if the leader at last has the follower she’s been looking for, and a husband who is ‘in touch with reality’. One day recently, she remarked to Tizer, their PA, that she would like to get hold of ‘whoever’s running China’. Ness had put her onto Chinese art, along with so much else, in the 1980s and she wanted to tell these people, whoever they were, what a wonderful civilisation China had been for millennia (‘up until 1911’) and could be again, if only they would listen to her.

Now Andreas would never think like that. But if I asked him, practically, to help me reach out to China, he would. Instead, do you know what he said? He said, ‘I’ve just had the most wonderful day of my life,’ because he’d seen the work of the designer Charles Worth at the V&A… . That’s what I mean by reality: something within his means to deal with.