Punk’s visual identity was formulated by two individuals. Malcolm McLaren was a pop impresario and manager of the Sex Pistols. He had his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. Vivienne Westwood was a fashion designer and she had the creative flare to translate McLaren’s ideas into clothing. In 1971 they took over a shop at 430 Kings Road, London, and renamed it SEX in 1975. Their ambition was to bring the dark world of sexual adventure and fetish to the streets of London.
Westwood produced provocative clothing. The Bondage Suit combined references to the straightjacket and bondage/sadomasochism for ultimate shock value. She produced t-shirts emblazoned with provocative phrases. A famous photograph shows McLaren in a T-shirt reading ‘Cambridge Rapist’ and Westwood wearing a T-shirt displaying a paedophilic image. As you can imagine, Punk outraged the mainstream of British society. Westwood changed the look of rock music forever, matching The Sex Pistols' revolutionary sound with an equally revolutionary approach to DIY fashion.
Today Vivienne Westwood is Britain’s most culturally significant fashion designer, personifying the subversive originality of British fashion. After punk had died down, she began to take an interest in the clothes and fabrics of the British establishment. Her Harris Tweed collection of 1987 took its inspiration from Savile Row tailors.
Affectionately parodying the establishment, these clothes evoked the aristocracy, boarding school and country houses, as well as upper class pursuits like hunting, shooting and fishing. Westwood has stated: ‘I am never more happy than when I parody the British in the context of a classical perspective.’ Westwood’s work inevitably declared sexuality under the constraint of British understatement.
She revives traditional forms, but distorts them. Westwood’s Pirates collection (1979-81) was adopted by musicians labelled the New Romantics. This work brought to the fore the habit for which she is renowned: raiding history for ideas. Adam and the Ants and Spandau Ballet wore billowing shirts inspired by Westwood’s study of 18th Century men’s clothing but flamboyantly fused with North American Indian and pirate styles. Supported by meticulous research, the Mini-Crini collection of 1986 featured shortened 19th century-style crinolines with Minnie-Mouse prints, polka dots and stars and stripes worn with rocking-horse platform shoes.