Vivienne Westwood: The Punk Priestess Goes Postmodern

January 15, 2014 • Fashion


“[Postmodernism] operates in a field of tension between tradition and innovation, conservation and renewal, mass culture and high art…”

— Andreas Huyssen


The strain scholar Andreas Huyssen recognizes in postmodernism’s operation can be perfectly summed up in one cultural artifact familiar to fashion lovers: a globus cruciger, representative of the gloriously rich tradition of the United Kingdom, encircled by the ring of Saturn, a space-age futuristic touch that engenders temporal tension with the symbol of the old guard, but ultimately resolves itself in unity as a symbol of postmodernism. There could not be a more appropriate logo for Vivienne Westwood, a designer who in over 40 years of work has managed to alter the visual rhetoric of Western fashion as a whole.

In this era of liminal space hovering between pre-industrial and post-, a malleable world where individuals still incorrectly believe identity and culture are immutable positions, Westwood has defied and re-imagined fashion and identity through postmodern processes with a flair for deconstruction.

Initially viewers and consumers recognize these theories in Westwood’s work because of the surface-orientation of her designs: bright mismatched tartans, glutted concoctions of duchesse satin, anarchy shirts crudely painted with agitprop. They’re shocking, unusual, not quite “right,” and therefore agitate and titillate those who view her fashions stomping down the catwalk. But peeking beneath the layers of her clothes reveals the theoretical underpinnings and foundations that catapult her fashion from bizarre spectacle to important cultural heritage.

Known by all as The High Priestess of Punk, Westwood began her fashion career alongside the late Malcolm McLaren, creating fashions for the rebellious youth subculture of London. And though tomes can be written on the postmodern implications of punk (and of course many have been), it’s Westwood’s solo career that solidifies her as a conceptual heir to Frederic Jameson, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard.

In her first solo collections she ushered pirates into the end of the millennium, adapting historical patterns indicative of swashbuckling style and thematic inclusion of modern day practitioners of music piracy, creating a dialectic between historic and contemporary identities. She evolved her punk beginnings while setting the bar for her melange of cultures, eras and concepts in the decades to come.

Pirate shirts were adapted from centuries old patterns and then subverted; decorated with a woodblock vermicular print, sleeves lengthened beyond the human anatomy, off-kilter neck holes that shifted the symmetrical silhouette of fashion. The overall effect was something familiar, even nostalgic, but distorted, ultimately causing a response of alienation by viewers.


She continued down this path of historical research with Mini-Crini (S/S 1985): hyper-feminized, romantic silhouettes reminiscent of Rococo France, but cheekily shortened and modernized. It was, additionally, a protest against the trailblazing womenswear of the ‘80s which masculinized the female form in an aggressive inverted triangle; the Mini-Crini was an almost infantilized, saccharine form more standard to ballerinas, yet undeniably forceful and beautiful. Westwood found feminism through dainty dress, an incommensurable tactic that reflects the fluidity of gender in our times.

Westwood’s promotion of “artistic” and overall “classical” mandates to style, though initially visually incongruent to her iconoclastic creations, signals the core of deconstruction in her work. Her Pagan phase from the late 1980s exemplifies this reinterpretation of history. While conjuring up images of heathens and witches, “Pagan” in her words refers to Hellenistic values that were the very foundation for Western society. By unpinning these typical connotations through her language (both visual and literal) she draws a semiotic poststructuralist thread through her garments, in a sense unraveling the signification with a blooming cornucopia of meanings.

Expression of oppositional meanings in clothing usually manifests itself through disfigurement: ripped, bleach jeans turn the icon of rugged Americana on its head, for instance. This was largely a tenant of early punk wardrobe, self-vandalism as a confrontational outward representation of anti-establishment values. After pioneering the street style, Westwood continued these contrarian tactics in her solo collections, but it soon evolved beyond puerile resistance. By the late 1980s, she began overturning the binary of “whole” and “broken” clothing and created something entirely different.


Inspired by Tudor portraits, she created androgynous looks in her Cut And Slash collection (S/S 1991) that utilized literal deconstruction to reflect theoretical deconstruction. Silks trousers slashed to reveal interior garments, fraying edges reminiscent of shipwreck victims, chunky knitwear that looked threadbared but actually designed with “flaws” within the pattern itself. Part historical, part punk, the collection showed not Westwood’s resistance to mainstream culture and fashion, but her excavation of history in order to innovate.

More recent collections have seen Westwood abandon historical excavation and return to her roots of fabric manipulation, treating material as the raw foundation for looks by experimenting with its natural tendencies and shaping it into new, dynamic interactions with the human body. The overall effect can be, at times, quite jarring, altering the human form in atypical ways. This tactic can be viewed as an evolution of Westwood’s postmodern feminism; the clothing denaturalizing the female wearer’s fetishized corporeal identity by at once obliterating the natural form and creating a new, almost transcendent (or, at least, asexually mutated) one that liberates the one adorned in a Westwood creation from the male gaze.

Throughout her years of artistry, Vivienne Westwood has questioned major metanarratives of the world from the political state of the UK in the late ‘70s, to the strictures of the fashion industry, to human and environmental injustices that continue today. Her combination of history and tradition into experimental fragmentary designs perfectly summates the idea of postmodernism that we continue to wrestle with to this day.

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