Amrit Virdi looks back at the legacy of Dame Vivienne Westwood after her tragic passing in December.
You’d have to have been living under a rock to be unbeknown to the impact of legendary British designer Dame Vivienne Westwood. Being a pioneer in merging together fashion and punk music in the new wave era, her work has been celebrated across the world by consumers and designers alike.
Dame Westwood studied jewellery and silversmith at the University of Westminster, and was previously a primary school teacher before venturing into fashion. It is clear that she came from humble beginnings and gained her notoriety through hard work, selling her own jewellery at a Portobello Road stall and making her own wedding dress for her first wedding in 1962.
A pivotal moment which, in a sense, defined the trajectory of Dame Westwood’s career was her collaboration with renowned band Sex Pistols, who brought Vivienne’s designs to public attention as they were styled in them. Her second husband Malcolm McLaren was the manager of the punk band.
With the Sex Pistols becoming a key statement of the 1970s wave of punk fashion, McLaren and Westwood capitalised upon this growing trend by opening SEX, a boutique that defined fashion in the punk movement in 1971, which was eventually renamed as Worlds End in 1979. Here, Vivienne sold graphic tees donning controversial words and symbols and bondage trousers, as well as plenty of leather and biker zips— a far cry from the colourful disco fashion that was in the spotlight at the time.
In terms of the punk scene, Dame Westwood’s legacy to this current day is undeniable. SEX and her punk designs gave people who may have felt like ‘outcasts’ in everyday life a place to meet, congregate, and find fashion they resonated with. Though some criticised the frayed edges and slashes in clothes that made them look ‘unfinished’, it represented something more— a rebelling against societal norms of what fashion should be.
Dame Westwood classed her designs as being independent, and she did not stay defined to the punk realm. Vivienne held her first official collaborative catwalk show with McLaren in 1981, embracing a romantic style which still lives on in the fashions of Rick Owens and Matty Bovan. Vivienne used it as a way to express her love of colour and advance her designs to not being limited to the traditional punk realm, coinciding with Richard Buckley’s observation of punk taking a more light-hearted stance at this time.
The New Romantic look, embodied in the Pirate collection which was showcased in 1981, was flamboyant and bold, breaking even more barriers as it was also partly inspired by Native American patterns. Eye-catching stripes and swirls, baggy trousers, oversized shirts, and pirate-style hats embodied the collection, along with golds, oranges, and yellows. These motifs were influential to a number of people, particularly to Adam and the Ants who took inspiration from this type of fashion and Dame Westwood’s traditional punk leather looks to inform their onstage looks.
The extravagant ‘pirate’ motifs weren’t limited to the 1980s. It inspired looks throughout her collection as vibrant patterns in a ‘sophisticated yet raggedy castaway’ style seemed to reoccur, particularly in her Spring 1993 collection.
A relocation to Italy in 1984 propelled Vivienne Westwood to the next level as she showcased her Spring/Summer 1984 Hypnos Collection in Tokyo after being invited as part of Hanae Mori’s global fashion awards. This collection went away from the punk scene once more as it embraced brighter colours and parachute style clothes. Carving out her own solidified space in the fashion industry, particularly after the dissolution of her label with Malcolm McLaren after their divorce, it was clear she was becoming a worldwide name.
Taking inspiration from all sources, Dame Westwood made her collections culturally relevant, naming her Autumn/Winter 1984-85 collection ‘Clint Eastwood’, in reference to the actor, and releasing a collection inspired by Blade Runner.
It also seemed as if the punk motifs were being abandoned altogether. Moving away from punk themes and towards clothes which parodied the upper classes, Dame Westwood invented her iconic ‘Mini-Crini’ in 1985, taking inspiration from Victorian fashion. Mixing the corset-style Victorian crinoline and the miniskirt, it merged together old and new in a fashionable way. She kept this mission of merging worlds throughout her career as she brought together old and new again when designing academic gowns for King’s College London in 2007. Teaching in Vienna and Berlin, Vivienne’s desire to shape the younger generation also was apparent in her ethos and branding.
With her name becoming more prominent than ever before, it signalled a key moment for the innovative branding that would symbolise her fashion. The orb logo was invented in 1986 as Vivienne was under the wing of Fiorucci in Italy following her divorce. As she moved to Italy, she was inspired by images of royalty, luxury, and evolving traditions into the future when designing. It was then, via experimentation, that the orb logo was born, and it symbolised taking tradition into the future. It first appeared on the Harris Tweed in the 1987-88 Autumn/Winter collection and has been an iconic piece of imagery ever since.
When you think of Vivienne Westwood, the orb is generally what comes to mind first, and this rings true even in 2023. Her shoes, bags, and clothing all have the iconic orb on them somewhere, but 2021 saw the resurgence in popularity of Vivienne Westwood’s jewellery amidst the y2k trends rising in popularity. The Mini Bas Relief Pearl Choker, often paired with the Mini Bas Relief Orb Earrings, were so popular that they were almost impossible to get hold of.
With the orb available in different sizes and colours— either gold, silver, or rose gold, it emphasised how Dame Westwood had the ability to make her designs accessible to people of different styles and different generations. Whether paired with a bodycon skirt and shirt for the office or with cargos and a crop top for an everyday look, the Bas Relief jewellery line managed to find its way into almost every outfit— a testament to Vivienne Westwood’s legacy.
From the 1990s onwards, Dame Westwood’s impact was recognised even further with a slew of accolades. John Fairchild classed her as one of the world’s top six designers in his 1989 book, and she won the British Fashion Council’s award for ‘Fashion Designer of the Year’ two years in a row in 1990 and 1991. Additionally, she also received a Damehood in 2006.
Celebrities across the world have worn Vivienne’s designs, including Princess Eugenie, Pharrell Williams, and Dua Lipa. Dame Westwood’s introduction of wedding gowns into her collection in 1992 also led her to gain even more publicity among the celebrity world. Dita Von Teese wore a purple gown designed by Vivienne Westwood for her wedding in 2005, and the 2008 film adaptation of Sex and the City featured its main character being sent a handwritten note and wedding dress from Westwood herself. After the film was premiered, a knee-length version of the dress was able to buy, and this sold out in hours.
Throughout the later stages of her life, Westwood’s contributions as an avid activist really shined. In late 2022, she founded a not-for-profit company with her sons and her granddaughter titled The Vivienne Foundation, which is set to launch late 2023 in honour of her legacy. Their aim to create change by working with NGOs, tackling climate change, stopping war, defending human rights and protesting capitalism.
Her legacy stretched across international charities having worked with charities such as Amnesty International, Liberty, and War Child, but the main focus of her activism was around preventing climate change. As an ambassador for Greenpeace, she launched a global campaign to stop drilling and industrial fishing in the Arctic in 2015.
Creating change specifically within the fashion world was also a goal of Vivienne’s, which manifested in multiple ways. Her ‘Made in Kenya’ collaboration launched in 2010, which was a partnership with the United Nations supporting the Ethical Fashion Initiative and Artisan Fashion. Her 2018 collaboration with Burberry was also in support of a UK not-for-profit organisation called Cool Earth, which raises money to protect endangered forests and ecosystems to fight global warming. In a similar vein, she partnered with Eastpak for the ‘SAVE OUR OCEANS’ line of bags in July 2020, and partnered with not-for-profit organisation Canopy for Earth Day 2020, campaigning to protect forests through fabric choices. Her last physical fashion show was the 2019 London Fashion Week before she made the decision to go digital for environmental reasons.
With an astounding legacy such as this, it is no wonder that there was an outpouring of condolences from celebrities of different industries from all over the world. Bella Hadid, Naomi Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Victoria Beckham, Paul McCartney, and Marc Jacobs are just a few of the big names who paid tribute to the designer, with Stella McCartney writing that “Vivienne pushed every single boundary and held her head so high.”
“Fashion is life-enhancing and I think it’s a lovely, generous thing to do for other people.”
This is one of Dame Vivienne Westwood’s most famous quotes, and it certainly rings true to her work. While she started out with fashion, Dame Westwood has used the platform that it gave her to shine a light on a wealth of societal issues and has taken the fashion world a step further.
As people of all ages still buy her designs today and her activism lives on through the Vivienne Foundation, it is clear that she has left an amazing legacy and will go down in history as one of the fashion greats.
You can read more of Amrit’s work via her portfolio, amritvirdi.journoportfolio.com, or by following her Instagram @thevinylwriter. Image below by Mattia Passeri from Wikimedia Commons