Rebellion by Design; Celebrating Vivienne Westwood's Shocking Career

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Byline: Tara Pepper

Nothing is ever quite as it seems with British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. When she received an Order of the British Empire medal from the queen in 1992, she looked the picture of respectability in a gray flannel suit. But talking to reporters outside Buckingham Palace afterward, she couldn't resist giving a twirl to reveal that she wasn't wearing any underwear. As a new retrospective of Westwood's work makes clear, such shock tactics are de rigueur in a career characterized by imaginative subversion. "Vivienne Westwood at the V&A" (through July 11 at London's Victoria and Albert Museum) brings together more than 150 designs from the museum's collection and Westwood's personal archive to chart the development of a prolific designer whose aim has always been to cut a swath through traditional tailoring--as well as social mores.

At the exhibit's entrance hangs the huge clock, divided into 13 hours and with hands whirling swiftly backward, that stood in Westwood's first shop at 430 King's Road. It sums up the counterintuitive image she has cultivated for 34 years, creating clothes that defined whole generations. That includes the anarchic 1970s punk movement that she and her partner, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, spearheaded, and the New Romantics of the early 1980s. Fifteen years ago Women's Wear Daily rated her as one of the six most important designers of the 20th century, along with Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani. Today Westwood, 63, produces three labels and two perfume lines and has shops across the world. Yet she has remained resolutely independent, retaining complete control of her business and operating outside fashion's close-knit circles. The Victoria and Albert Museum had the foresight to start collecting her work in 1983. "It was just so different," says exhibit curator Claire Wilcox. "She plows her own furrow. She's trying to present an alternative way of looking."

Westwood's penchant for rebellion grew out of her own experience. Her mother was a cotton weaver and her father a factory worker from Derbyshire. Though she started training in fashion, then silversmithing, at Harrow College of Art in London, Westwood dropped out after a semester, thinking her background would prevent her from being accepted in the capital's middle-class arts scene. She scraped together a living selling jewelry in London's Portobello Road, then worked in a factory. But in 1965 she met McLaren, an art and drama student, who introduced her to his creative, politically radical friends. Suddenly, she says, "I felt as if there were so many doors to open, and he had the key to all of them."

The punk movement was driven by working-class youth like herself "who were fed up with being ignored," she says. …