Vivienne Westwood (1941-2022) is notorious for her fashionable runway looks with inspiration from historical gowns. However, she began her journey in the fashion world designing clothes for the punk subculture, such as graphic tees with  political messages. Westwood also developed her career by styling punk rock bands, famously The Sex Pistols. How and why did she transition from the anti-establishment, grunge fashion designer to the luxury brand she once would have turned her nose at? And can Westwood still be considered punk in her later years?

In this article, we will discuss:

  • Vivienne Westwood’s beginnings
  • The punk fashion she created
  • Her aesthetic and switching over to high fashion
  • And is Westwood right about punk subculture?
Westwood standing in front of her boutique, at this point titled SEX.
SEX was Vivienne Westwood’s fetish boutique that she ran with her partner. It became the formation space of the notorious punk band, The Sex Pistols. Image courtesy of Kids of Dada.

Westwood’s Rise

In 1971, Vivienne Westwood and her partner at the time, Malcolm McLaren, rented out a storefront on King’s Road. They named the London boutique Let it Rock after a Chuck Berry song with the same name. At this point in the store’s history, Westwood and McLaren primarily sold American rock memorabilia from the 1950s. At this point, her engagement with subculture was slightly more subtle– she littered the store with pornographic magazines and fetish content, but it significantly evolved to much more obvious punk statements.

Over time, the store became Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die and the pieces within the store upgraded. Instead of random American objects Westwood and McLaren had purchased, Westwood would customize and sell tee shirts with anti-capitalist and anti-establishment text and graphics.

Once again, the storefront was rebranded. This time, it became SEX, a more provocative era of Westwood and McLaren’s shop. Filled with graffiti of anarchy symbols, whips, and other fetish gear, SEX became one of the most well-known iterations of Westwood’s store. It was at this point when punk rock bands started interacting directly with Vivienne Westwood and her designs. SEX employed Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and numerous models of the time.

More famously, SEX was the hangout spot of The Sex Pistols. This drastically changed the lives of Westwood and her partner. Malcolm McLaren became manager of the band, and Westwood designed the clothing they wore to mirror their anarchist views.

Two models wear “God Save the Queen” tee shirts in a scrapyard.
The Sex Pistols were censored after writing a song, criticizing the monarchy. In response, Westwood designed shirts, picturing Queen Elizabeth II’s mouth being covered. Image courtesy of CNN.

Westwood’s  punk fashion

Westwood’s designs for The Sex Pistols and her alternative storefront were some of her most widespread, influential looks. Many looks included decorated and upcycled tee shirts, adorned with rips, safety pins, and anti-capitalist sayings. Her fashion was aggressive and purposefully challenged the conservatism of the 1970s.

When The Sex Pistols were censored for their single titled “God Save the Queen,” she designed shirts for the band with Queen Elizabeth II’s face on them, mouth covered with safety pins or sayings. There’s also her infamous “Destroy” tee shirt, featuring a Swastika with an upside down, crucified Jesus. This shirt, like many of hers, was designed to reject fascism and criticize conservative older generations.

Stretched out Expose t-shirt designed by Vivienne Westwood, Tere is a graphic of a gorilla and the words “punk, rock, sex.”
Westwood designed numerous t-shirts that promoted anti-capitalist and pro-punk ideologies. Image courtesy of the Met Museum.

At this point, she renamed the storefront: Seditionaries. The idea was sedition– rebellion against authority or monarchy. Vivienne Westwood considered her clothes art and had goals of starting social change with her pieces. She wanted to “try to put a spoke in the wheel of this terrible killing machine”

Punk teenagers walking down the street.
Despite the fear punk subculture put into conservative Britain’s minds, Westwood believed punk to be largely for aesthetic purposes only. Image courtesy of National Geographic.

However, many customers and punks didn’t make the connection, which appeared to be obvious for Westwood. Instead, they preferred to purchase more and more of her pieces, rather than making political change. It was this inaction (combined with her separation from the abusive McLaren) that led to Westwood’s switch to high fashion. Later in life, Vivienne Westwood describes the punk subculture as a “fashion that became a marketing opportunity”.

Vivienne Westwood shaking hands with Princess Diana at the end of a show.
Over time, Westwood’s views shifted. Not only did she switch to high fashion, she became more favorable to the monarchy. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

Elite High Fashion

When Westwood entered the mainstream fashion world, her inspiration was historical corsetry, voluminous skirts, plaid, and poking fun at the bourgeoisie. Despite leaving the punk movement behind, she continued using elements from the subculture. She incorporated reds and plaids into numerous collections.

Composite Image. The left shows a runway look from the Autumn/Winter fashion week of 2014. On the right, Kat Graham wears vivienne westwood for Spring/Summer Paris Fashion
Plaid and corsets became a common motif in Westwood’s runway styles. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

As she aged, her politics shifted. She became a supporter of the monarchy, calling it an “asset” to British society. Westwood was even deemed Dame Vivienne Westwood. Her symbol is an orb, created after imagining what the members of the royal family would wear on their days off.

However, she maintained her activism, collaborating with GreenPeace and many others to fight against fracking and for climate justice. Westwood has infamously mocked Margaret Thatcher, arguably the most soulless capitalist in Britain’s recent history, and advocates for LGBTQ rights, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-racism.

Westwood stands beside a few of her creations from 1999.
In her later years, Vivienne Westwood rejected the label of punk, but continued to advocate for marginalized communities and environmental justice. Image courtesy of NBC.

Was Westwood right about Punk subculture?

If you’re anything like me, your first instinct is “well…” As a woman who lived and breathed punk for years, forming the foundation of punk fashion, Westwood’s words have more weight than most of us. She argued punk is hypocritical– it was supposed to be about dismantling capitalism but in practice involved buying alternative clothing, so people acknowledge you as a rebel.

This is true in any subculture. People co-opt the subculture’s aesthetics without regard to the moral principles of the movement. Blatant right-wing propaganda has started using punk imagery to radicalize people to accept fascism, completely ignoring that the main idea of punk is anti-fascism and anti-establishment.

Simultaneously, companies like Hot Topic, Shein, Romwe, and Amazon use the punk label for their poorly made, unsustainable products. Companies realized people want to appear subversive and that they can sell people the feeling of rebellion. So they design fake patch jackets, pre-distressed clothing, and use unethical practices while doing it.

TLDR: Punk is a mindset

I completely understand why Westwood deemed punk a marketing scheme– any culture that exists can be taken advantage of in a capitalist society. However, I like to consider myself an optimist. In the words of John Patrick Logan:

“If you ever say 'I used to be punk' then you never really were! Punk is a mindset, a way you think and live, so you either are a punk or you are not! It is not just a 'phase' you go through!!”

If punk is a mindset, Westwood was always punk (to an extent. Her support of the monarchy is questionable for an anti-establishment group). If you agree with Logan’s statement, then punk is not about fashion at all. Punk subculture is about tearing down oppressive systems to make new ones, something Westwood attempted through her entire career.

Punk (and any subculture) can be full of hypocrisy. But the true core of punk is strong and lasts for a lifetime. Just like Vivienne Westwood during her time on this Earth. She stuck to her beliefs, escaped an abusive relationship, and continued making beautiful art that inspires designers around the world.

Westwood is a magnificent artist, punk or not.