Blonde Sedition: Vivienne Westwood and Marilyn

The flamboyant English fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, died on December 29, 2022. She was born in Tintwistle, a village in Cheshire (it is now designated as in Derbyshire) in 1941. Her father Gordon Swire, formerly a greengrocer, was working a storekeeper in an aircraft factory for the duration of World War II. (Across the Atlantic, teenager Norma Jeane Dougherty would soon take a job at a munitions plant, where she was ‘discovered’ by an army photographer in 1944 – and the rest is Hollywood history …)

In 1958, the Swires moved to Harrow, in Greater London. Vivienne took a jewellery and silversmithing course at Harrow Art School (now part of the University of Westminster), but left after just one term. “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world,” she said. She later became a primary school teacher, and also sold her own jewellery on the Portobello Road market.

She married factory apprentice Derek Westwood in 1962, and they had a son, Benjamin. The marriage ended in 1965 when she met Malcolm McLaren, a student at Harrow Art School. Their son Joe was born in 1967. In 1971, they opened a record shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea. Initially named Let it Rock, it was a hangout for teddy boys. Vivienne also designed and sold clothes there, which were worn onstage in The Rocky Horror Show and onscreen in That’ll Be the Day. Following a US trip in 1973, she also supplied costumes to glam-punk pioneers the New York Dolls.

In 1974, the shop was renamed SEX, to reflect Vivienne’s interest in bondage and fetishwear. By 1976, when McLaren was managing the Sex Pistols, the shop was a hub of the burgeoning punk movement. “As the years went by the designs became more outlandish and outrageous,” Ian Kelly would write in Westwood’s authorised biography. “What Malcolm patronisingly referred to as Vivienne’s ‘potato printing’ – a technically accurate description in some cases – took on icons and taboos. One of the more enduring – it still sells in the World’s End shop – is a plain T-shirt printed with a naked breast at chest height … Others took icons of Vivienne’s childhood and adolescence – Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Marilyn Monroe – and subverted them in a manner both ridiculous and shocking.”

The infamous ‘Piss Marilyn’ T-shirt used an image by photographer Philippe Halsman, last seen on her first LIFE magazine cover in 1952. “Mum, I’m confused. Do you like her or not?” asked Vivienne’s son, Ben. “Yeah, it’s not about that,” she replied. “I’m just trying to shock people …” Following a police raid, the shop was renamed (again) as Seditionaries.

In 1981, Vivienne entered the world of haute couture with her first collection, ‘Pirate,’ followed by ‘Savages,’ ‘Buffalo’ and ‘Punkature.’ She dubbed this period ‘New Romantic,’ and also created the iconic styles of post-punk band Adam and the Ants. After dissolving her partnership with McLaren, she entered her ‘Pagan Years,’ with innovations such as the puffball skirt, or ‘mini-crini.’

Throughout the 1980s and beyond, Vivienne’s favourite model and muse was Sara Stockbridge, whose platinum blonde curls were Marilyn-inspired. “I like Marilyn because there’s always something that’s slightly wrong,” Sara told Fashion’s Most Wanted in 2011. “There’s always something that’s got a crease or a broken strap. I don’t like too overdone. There’s something I think that Coco Chanel said, I think it was her, but it was actually my Gran who said it to me. She said: when you look in the mirror before you go out you must take something off; don’t have the earrings and the bracelet and the whatever all together. I like the slightly sparse look, like something’s missing.”

In April 1989, Westwood appeared on the cover of Tatler dressed as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Born in 1926 (the same year as Marilyn), Mrs Thatcher was – like Vivienne – a grocer’s daughter, and in later life, the two women shared both an entrepreneurial spirit and a striking physical resemblance. The similarities ended there, however, as Vivienne went on to become a passionate environmental campaigner. In 2006, she was made a Dame of the British Empire; and in 2012, she was featured in a new version of pop artist Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band cover (Marilyn had appeared on the original.)

Marilyn’s influence can also be perceived in some of Westwood’s later designs. This mini-dress, from her Spring/Summer Ready to Wear collection, was likely inspired by the ‘snake costume’ designed by Travilla, and worn by Marilyn for her role as showgirl Cherie in Bus Stop (1956.) And like Cherie’s fishnet stockings, the model’s tights appear to be laddered!

And finally, Vivienne’s runway collection for Summer 2022 (designed with husband Andreas) included a bridal gown with ruffled neckline and feather train cited by Vogue as ‘Marilyn Monroe-inspired,’ possibly after the blue Travilla gown from the finale of There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954.)

Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn 

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