“I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world”— Vivienne Westwood
It’s impossible to describe Vivienne Westwood in a short form like our Designer Diaries, but even just hitting the high points makes for an amazing story. To say that she was an unconventional choice for a designer of royal duds is an understatement.
Vivienne was born in tiny Tintwhistle, Cheshire. Her family moved to Greater Harrow, outside London, when she was school age. She attended a semester at Harrow Art College, but felt that art would lead nowhere, so left to find more realistic employment. She married when she was young, had a child, and found work in a factory before eventually attending teacher college and becoming a primary school teacher.
Her second husband, Malcolm McLaren, was a rock impresario and someone who could charitably be described as a rabble rouser. He convinced Westwood to leave teaching and work with him at his highly unconventional boutique “Let it Rock”, later rebranded “SEX”. Vivienne curated the fashion and became, in her own words, evangelical about punk rock as a sartorial statement. Their primary customers were punk rockers, fetishists, and sex workers.
McLaren and Westwood had a difficult relationship and eventually divorced. Westwood also extricated herself from professional involvement with him. Between 1981 and 1985, she embarked on her “new romantic” phase, and then moved to her “pagan” years in the late eighties. She eventually became focused on re-interpreting silhouettes of the past – while incorporating her trademark fitting and draping – which is the style we associate with her royal commissions.
The royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton was an enormous spectacle, and Westwood was well represented by Princess Eugenie. The Princess wore Westwood designs to three events: the pre-wedding gala, the wedding, and the post-wedding party, although we don’t have a photo of the last. For the wedding, Eugenie wore a bubble skirt with a tightly fitted, pattern corset top. I really wish we would see this outfit again, without the distraction of the hat.
The gown for the pre-wedding gala was a more subdued affair. The black gown featured a fitted, corseted bodice with draping at the neckline and hip.
That same year, the Princess wore a gown in a similar style at Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball. The color is very flattering to her and the dropped shoulder detail adds a sassy detail.
Eugenie must have loved the color and style, for she repeated both in a Westwood design worn to the AIDs Banquet in 2016. Whether this is entirely new or a dress that has been re-worked from the gown is not clear, although there are differences in the sleeves and neckline.
The trademarked Westwood draping also appeared on the then-Duchess of Cornwall for her appearance at the 80th Royal Variety Show in 2008. I hope there are more Westwoods in her closet for this is very flattering to her.
Ms. Westwood died late last year, leaving behind a legacy that has spanned decades, styles, and social classes. The story of a designer who started as designer for punk rockers, fetish folks and sex workers eventually designed for royals is one that needs to be told, so I hope someone takes it on in movie form.
If you would like to view more of her designs and read more of her story, this article is a great starting point