From revitalizing the corset to climate change: Vivienne Westwood’s fashion legacy

By Liv Barry

Lifestyle Editor

Prolific fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood passed away on Dec. 29, 2022 at the age of 81.

Known for her daring designs that fused the personal with the political, Westwood’s legacy in the fashion industry continues to make waves even after her passing.

While the designer is frequently touted as the mother of punk, according to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the designer merely popularized punk fashion, drawing inspiration from the working class of London and New York City in the 1970s.

In 1971, Westwood, an elementary school teacher, and her partner, Malcolm McLaren, opened a boutique in London called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. The couple sought to demonstrate their anti-establishment politics through their shop by selling shirts with inflammatory slogans like “PERV” and “SCUM.”

Their shop, which was re-named SEX in 1974, caught the attention of the public by catering their designs towards sex workers. It was during this time that Westwood’s designs were adopted by the influential punk band Sex Pistols, who McLaren managed.

With the Sex Pistols wearing their clothing, Westwood’s designs, which combined do-it-yourself elements with fetish wear, swept the alternative movement.

Traces of Westwood’s punk designs are still seen in fashion today. Most recently, mohair sweaters, a staple of the designer’s early looks, trended on social media, inspiring hundreds of cozy dresses and sweaters. Additionally, screen printed graphic t-shirts are back in style thanks in part to Marc Jacobs, whose Heaven collection is promoted by celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Steve Lacy.

However, at the turn of the decade, Westwood shifted her sights beyond punk. Following her split with McLaren in 1982, Westwood developed preppier designs that would forever define her brand.

In her Autumn/Winter 1987 runway show “Harris Tweed,” Westwood harkened back to her anti-establishment roots by subverting styles commonly worn by the upper-crust of Britain, including houndstooth, fur, pearls, and tweed.

According to Harper’s Bazaar, this collection was also the introduction of the Statue of Liberty corset and the Bas Relief pearl choker, designs that Westwood continued to use in her runway shows through the end of her career.

Taking inspiration from the famous design, Westwood’s corset made a comeback in 2019, as seen on celebrities like Bella Hadid, FKA Twigs, and Kourtney Kardashian. Corsets continue to trend today, with different iterations seen on celebrities and fashion lovers alike.

The Bas Relief choker also saw a renaissance beginning in 2020, due in part to the popularity of “Nana,” an anime series adapted from Ai Yazawa’s manga. Throughout the series, the characters are often seen in Westwood’s designs, most notably the pearl choker.

According to Nylon, the TikTok virality of “Nana” created a new demographic for Westwood — alternative members of Generation Z. The choker quickly caught on, with teenagers donning the pearl necklace.

Westwood’s motifs, like corsets, preppy patterns, and the brand’s orb logo, are still seen in current designs, but the fashion mogul shifted her career in the mid-2000s to focus on social justice.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, Westwood’s runway shows drew from issues that ailed society. She touched on topics of ecological injustice, women’s rights, and bisexual visibility in her modern collections.

According to The Guardian, despite her ever-growing popularity, Westwood decided to limit the expansion of her flagship stores in 2014 in order to reform her brand’s approach to sustainable clothing.

Until her death, Westwood remained a staunch supporter of environmental justice groups. She ran a website called Climate Revolution, on which she raised awareness for a multitude of environmental issues. According to climate justice organization Cool Earth, Westwood donated over 1.5 million dollars towards environmental issues over the course of her career.

In the 2014 biography “Vivienne Westwood,” the designer said, “I did not see myself as a fashion designer but as someone who wished to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others.”

Westwood’s efforts to unify fashion with social justice will live on alongside her iconic designs, marking her status as one of the most influential contemporary brands.

Photo caption: Westwood’s fiery red hair and matching lipstick were a staple of the designer’s persona.

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