The look of punk rock owes a great deal to Vivienne Westwood, the rule-breaking fashion designer who brought a subculture’s style into the mainstream. In the 1970s, she and her partner Malcolm McLaren ran a London boutique called Sex that became a hub of the punk movement and defined its aesthetic.
Vivienne Westwood: Fashion Unfolds, a new publication from Moleskine (the same company of notebook fame), details the history and backstory of 15 of the self-made designer’s signature pieces. Tracing the lineage of her provocative works, like a suit inspired by bondage gear, and seeing how a corset evolves from a 1640 metal torture device to Westwood’s “underwear as outerwear” shows how she subverts and remixes apparel to create something wholly individualistic.
In 1981, Westwood said “she had behaved like pirates, plundering ideas and colors from other places and periods,” the book’s author, Matteo Guarnaccia, writes. Her Pirate shirt from that year references the silhouette from British portraiture of the 17th and 18th century and uses an squiggle motif derived from African textiles.
Similarly, her Buffalo Hat of 1982 (which Pharrell donned at the 2014 Grammys) appropriates a style of headwear from Peruvian women in the Andes. She included it in her Nostalgia of Mud collection, so named after the French expression “nostalgie de la boue,” which refers to the late 19th-century bourgeoise’s obsession with poorer society. Westwood noticed that in the 1980s, homeless women were wrapping themselves up in layers of clothing that looked similar to indigenous Peruvian garments. She then created a runway collection that riffed on peasant-style attire.
Traditional articles of clothing were a constant jumping off point for Westwood. For example, she returned to the kilt many times during in her career. In her early years, she used the Scottish garment as social commentary on getting the public to accept men in skirts. For the Anglomania collection of 1993-1994, Westwood recast it as an elegant item for women to wear. She named the tartan pattern “MacAndreas” after her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and had it manufactured by Locharron, one of Scotland’s most historic textile mills to further the Mini Kilt’s dialog with the past.
The constant nod to the past is emblematic of Westwood’s creative vision. “I’m not interested in the future and I don’t believe in progress,” she told Guarnaccia in the book’s Q&A. “Progress and technology are all very well, but it’s still necessary to put a limit on what comes out of machines, otherwise everything will become standardized and this would degenerate into the loss of any individuality.”
As for how Westwood finds her inspiration: “I work with fabric, and fabric can give you unexpected ideas,” she says. “Just as sculptors have to face marble blocks or painters blank canvases, you can have an idea from which to start but it’s the fabric that makes the difference. With a piece of fabric and a handful of pins you can create the world.”
Vivienne Westwood: Fashion Unfolds is available from Moleskine for $49.