Friday, April 15, 2011

All The Coolest Redheads Are Turning 70

Seventy years ago on the British Isles there must have been something startling in the water, as two of the most interesting (and red-headed) women in fashion were born. In addition to the previously mentioned Grace Coddington, Vivienne Westwood turned 70 last week as well.

For good or ill, Ms. Westwood holds primary responsibility for what punk rock looked like in London, and continues to be worn in one form or another by disaffected (and fashionable) young people the world over. She is one of the most influential designers of the past 50 years. Without her, there couldn't have been an Alexander McQueen.

Dame Vivienne Westwood, like that other ravishing 70 year old fashion icon,Grace Coddington, emerged from a working class background. She spent only one semester at Harrow Art School because "I didn't know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world". She instead got a job in a factory and took a teacher training course (which, amazingly enough, is something Johnny Rotten would later do as well) becoming a primary school teacher, whilst designing and making jewlery that she sold at markets and on the Portobello Road. She met the always slippery Malcolm Maclaren in 1965, leaving her then husband for him. She continued to teach until they opened their shop, Let It Rock, in 1971 on the King's Road and fashion, music and social history would be absolutely changed forever.

I think Maclaren and Westwood's store is likely the most influential shop in history. In 1975 it was renamed "Sex" and became the center of punk (again, for good or ill). Westwood still owns it and sells her World's End clothing line from its historic environs. The question of who invented the punk look is always up for debate. Like all street styles, its influences and creators are manifold - but punk was small and contained in the early days, so its genesis isn't as difficult to track. Rotten and Maclaren had a lot of influence, and some of it came out of wearing one's poverty on one's sleeve. I've heard Rotten sneering at the idea of punks wearing head to toe leather (as popularized by Sid Vicious) as only rich people could afford such a look so it wasn't punk by definition. Westwood, the artist in the bunch, obviously has a lot to do with shaping the look. In later years, she has been extremely blasé about it, emphasizing that it was fashion.

Her first runway show was in 1981 and was inspired by pirates, launching what I vividly remember being the New Romantics, with Adam Ant and the early Duran Duran in their puffy shirts and Buccaneer jackets. She said she remembered seeing, when she was a small child, a woman dressed in Dior's New Look, and it left a huge impression on her. There's an extravagance in Dior that is definitely visible in Westwood's work, but it's never plays straight as Galliano often did with the same influence. It's always tweaked. Her garments are so deeply infused with fashion history, but her work, though decadent, never takes itself particularly seriously. Everything is always a little off center, as if this working class girl, now Dame of the British Empire, is still thumbing her nose at the upper classes. Most designers just make pretty dresses, but Westwood manages parody in hers.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

It's worth noting that McLaren and Westwood were borrowing heavily from the New York look adopted by Richard Hell (and to a much lesser extent the New York Dolls). If we could figure out who was the source for Hell's torn, safety-pinned "Please Kill Me" shirts---worn on the streets of the LES two years before they showed up at Sex---we'd know where the style really originates.

Caviglia said...

Absolutely. But all the trash bags and bondage inspired stuff was pure Mclaren/Westwood.

I don't think the Dolls, fashion wise, have much to do with any of it.