The Semiotics of the Street
Young, Elizabeth, New Statesman (1996)
British street and fashion culture is the envy of the world. But the grind of professionalism is killing maverick talent
There is a famous encounter in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. Cedric, a droll, flamboyantly camp social climber, visits the narrator, Fanny, a slightly dowdy young aristo married to an Oxford don. "Aha!" notes Cedric. "So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see!" Fanny says that her scarlet jacket was a present and expresses horror at the waste of money when, expertly, Cedric prices it. "Simply silly.., there's only a yard of stuff in it, worth a pound, if that."
Cedric retorts: "And how many yards of canvas in a Fragonard?... Art is more than yards..."
In these brief lines of dialogue Mitford summarises a gulf that exists to this day. Our society seems permanently divided between those who throw around words such as "genius", who believe that couture is high art, worthy of museum status and serious study, and Fanny's spiritual descendants, for whom fashion is all too silly, frivolous and immoral, who believe that the money would be better invested in third-world schoolbooks. Apart from a few protean stylists who can move painlessly from catwalk to thrift shop, fashion for the majority is either bliss or blight.
In this context it is interesting that in these two large books, each devoted to the work of a significant clothes designer, the clothes themselves do not occupy centre stage. They are the chorus, the supporting cast, the backdrop. A biography of a European couturier (even the recent relatively racy one on Yves St Laurent) must focus primarily on the designs. There is not much else. But Ossie Clark and Vivienne Westwood were English artists first and fashion designers second.
Over here we are far more interested in character than clothes; we prefer flamboyance to fabric. In the UK the context of fashion differs considerably from its continental European counterpart. Fashion here is more animated and inclusive, less cerebral and hierarchical than in Europe. So Clark and Westwood functioned primarily as personalities, each emblematic of a particular period in postwar culture.
Ossie Clark's name evokes a familiar pantheon of imagery - prettiness and privilege, spun-sugar rebellion, Mick'n'Bianca, Twiggy and Bailey, white butterflies, Moroccan lamps, dim rooms swagged and draped with ethnic tassels and fabrics, a fog of incense, rose-coloured spectacles and those early cocksure, thundering chords of the Beatles-Stones-Who soundtrack.
To an even greater extent Westwood represents a paparazzi paradise: designer to the original London punks, she's there too, professionally sullen with her bleach-blonde spiky crop, ripped fishnets, mohair jerseys and all her other provocative, confrontational, hard-edged, asexual clothes; later there's Vivienne picketing for culture in flesh-coloured tights and a strategic fig-leaf, or greeting royalty in a see-through lace dress. Flash! The mini-crini. Vivienne swaying around in her rocking-horse shoes, hectoring anyone on declining educational standards. Naomi Campbell tumbles off Vivienne's ten-inch platform shoes. Flash!
From the beginning, untramelled by idees recues, the untutored Westwood could always pull off a dazzling visual statement, particularly when in partnership (and love) with Malcolm McLaren. Alone she could not inject, Jane Mulvagh writes, "contemporary reference". "The semiotics of the street did not impinge on her isolated sensibilities... McLaren had a brazen, feet-on-the-ground, finger-on-the-pulse modernity. …