Derek McCormack on Vivienne Westwood

Looks from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Autumn/Winter 1981–82 “Pirate” collection. Photo: Robyn Beeche.


I write this directive in honor of Vivienne Westwood.

Stop saying stupid shit about fashion.

I write this directive because Westwood loved writing directives—she printed some on shirts, DESTROY being the best known. I’m making this memorial my DESTROY shirt.

Stop saying stupid shit about Vivienne Westwood—she despised stupidity.

I’m writing these because I adored what Westwood’s directives directed me to do: Destroy the Queen, destroy the state, destroy capitalism, destroy dumb music, destroy dumb fashion. I wish she had said: Destroy dumb fashion writing! I admired the attitude: If you were with her, then you were intelligent; if you weren’t, then fuck you.

Stop saying you loved Vivienne Westwood—she hated you.

I’m demanding in my directives that you, my fellow fashion fans, stop saying the same stale stuff about her—demanding the impossible was another of her directives. I demand you stop saying that she was a grand dame, the godmother of punk, the true queen of England—it doesn’t matter if these tropes are true or false, what matters is that you say fuck you to them and to everything, to God and empire, even to Vogue: Destroy them the way she did—destroy their words with different words.

What wicked words she had! What pissy pronouncements! After seeing Derek Jarman’s Jubilee in 1978, she sent him a “letter”—actually a screed, which she screen-printed onto shirts and sold at the store she owned with Malcolm McLaren: “I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen,” she wrote. “I’d rather consider that all this grand stuff and looking at diamonds is something to do with a gay (which you are) boy’s love of dressing up & playing at charades. (Does he have a cock between his legs or doesn’t he? Kinda thing) . . .”

What’s important is this: The shirt was dressed in words. The fashions Westwood and McLaren made at their store were the first to meld literary text and textile. They did it because—unbelievably—nobody else had. They did it to see what could happen, to see if words could fuck up clothing and if clothing could fuck up words, if one could damage or destroy the other—so punk! They did it with the thought that new words and clothes could be created from the destruction—wasn’t this their credo, that one should destroy culture? Wouldn’t this mean that they could be both creators and critics of a new culture—fashion design as criticism and fashion criticism as design?

What’s my proof for this? My proof is fuck you!

If you don’t know Westwood’s story, then read a fucking book. Vivienne Swire was born in 1941 in the central English town of Tintwistle, which I’m told is pronounced “Tinsel.” Mr. Swire, her father, was a storekeeper; Mrs. Swire, her mother, worked at a cotton factory. Mrs. Swire stocked her home with fabric and fripperies—she made herself dresses to go dancing in; in time, so did her daughter. Was there ever a designer who looked so incredible in her own clothes? Was there ever a better model for Westwood than Westwood herself?

Unknown employee, Alan Jones, Chrissie Hynde, and Jordan Mooney with Vivienne Westwood at her and Malcolm McLaren’s shop Sex, London, 1976. Photo: David Dagley/Shutterstock.

Stop saying you loved Vivienne Westwood—she hated you.

If you don’t know McLaren’s story, then read a fucking book. He was a self-styled Situationist when he met Vivienne in London. It was 1965: He was nineteen, she was twenty-four. He was a student at art school; she lived with a husband, Derek Westwood, and a baby and had a job teaching children. She fell for McLaren, left her spouse and school for him, left to become his confederate in life and then in fashion—though she never really stopped teaching. Was there ever a designer so pedantic about the things she made and the things she didn’t make? Was there ever a designer who issued so many dire directives?

With his help, she became who she was: designer, shit disturber, directiviste.

They opened a shop, Let It Rock, at 430 King’s Road in 1971. It specialized in togs for teddy boys, die-hard devotees of early rock ’n’ roll. McLaren thought them the last true teen revolutionaries. He located 1950s deadstock, drainpipe trousers, drape coats, brothel creepers; she customized some of it, copied some, cut some apart and put it back together but slightly skewed—now it was something new.

Then, in 1972, bored with teds, they turned the shop into Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, selling styles inspired by s/m and The Leather Boys. These styles included T-shirts that featured words—PERV on one, ROCK on another—spelled out in chicken bones and toilet-tank chains. These shirts and chains confirmed the duo’s affection for crap; they also confirmed their affection for fashion that featured words.

Then, in 1974, bored with bikers, they turned the shop into Sex, stocking latex, leather, rubber, vinyl—pervert apparel. The walls were festooned with slogans in French, the language of Debord and the Letterist International: “Sous les pavés, la plage” and “Prends ce que tu désirs pour la réalité.” T-shirts bore images of big-dicked gay cowboys or a picture of a black leather hood not unlike the cruder one worn by the Cambridge Rapist—but there were words here, too. The pair added a bit of dialogue to the cowboys après la lettre—or was it après le Lettrisme? They eventually sold several variations of Cambridge Rapist shirts: The most famous had his tabloid name printed on him like he was a rock ’n’ roller, like he was the King or the Killer.

Jordan Mooney in front of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop Sex, London, 1976. Photo: Sheila Rock.

You could say the words on the shirts were there to communicate something, but you’d be wrong. This wasn’t communication; it was spectacle. The T-shirt is a lousy medium for messaging: You can convey a slogan, but it must be concise—passersby can’t stop you to pore over what you’re sporting. So what McLaren and Westwood did was perverse—they did way too much and went way too far: They stitched up T-shirts—some with slits at the nipples, some with zippers at the nipples—then screen-printed them with an excerpt from an Alexander Trocchi text: I GROANED WITH PAIN AS HE EASED THE PRESSURE IN REMOVING THE THING WHICH HAD SPLIT ME AND THEN, HIS HUGE HANDS GRASPING ME AT THE HIPS MY BLONDE HAIR FORMING A POOL ON THE DARK WOOD . . .

You could say the words on the shirts were there to communicate something, but you’d be wrong. This wasn’t communication; it was spectacle.

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, armband, ca. 1976, cotton. From “Sex.”

Then, in 1976, bored by Sex, they turned the store into Seditionaries. The Sex Pistols became the house band, as it were—McLaren managed and mismanaged them while Westwood made what they wore: DESTROY shirts, bondage trousers, misshapen mohair sweaters. I particularly love a T-shirt from this period that’s in the permanent collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: Beneath a nineteenth-century illustration of Oliver Twist, this is written with a stick and ink:

They are Dickensian-like urchins who with ragged clothes and pockmarked faces roam the streets of foggy gaslit London pillaging . . . setting fire to buildings beating up old people with gold chains. Fucking the rich up the arse. Causing havoc wherever they go. Some of these ragamuffin gangs jump on tables amidst the charred debris and with burning torches play rock ’n roll to the screaming delight of the frenzied pissing pogoing mob. Shouting and spitting “anarchy” one of these gangs call themselves the Sex Pistols . . .

I wonder: Did Kathy Acker read this or wear this? I wonder: What’s the difference between reading and wearing?

Look from Vivienne Westwood’s Autumn/Winter 1994–95 “On Liberty” collection. Photo: Guy Marineau/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

Then the shop turned into Worlds End in 1980. They showed their “Pirate” collection of 1981 on a catwalk—a first for them. That was also the year they stopped being lovers; they had stopped collaborating by 1984. He made a bid for music stardom; she made a bid to be a great designer alone and then alongside a new husband, Andreas Kronthaler. He succeeded in a way; she succeeded wildly. The directives kept coming: GET A LIFE, BUY LESS. The T-shirts got less lewd, but literariness continued to creep through the clothes. In her “Witches” collection of 1983–84, she showed fabrics patterned on marbled endpapers. There was a collection inspired in part by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—truth be told, there were aspects of Alice in a slew of Westwood’s shows and in a series of scents: Cheeky Alice, Flirty Alice, Naughty Alice, Sunny Alice. She believed that book imparted a crucial lesson to children: Everything is relative. Alice puts her hand on her head to see if she’s getting bigger or smaller—but isn’t her hand getting bigger or smaller, too? Alice’s clothes also grow large, then small—has her dress become a body? Has it become her body? I think of how Westwood would set armholes way back, or cut neckholes close to shoulders, or elongate buttocks with bustles, or pinch breasts: These seemed to be adjustments for the adult Alice, for the body freed from bodiliness, the body imbricated by books. The nine-inch heels that Naomi Campbell had on when she fell at Westwood’s “Anglomania” show in Autumn/Winter 1993–94—they weren’t too high; they were the perfect height for somebody who might magically become bigger. They weren’t high heels; they were rabbit holes. Westwood was the Hatter and the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. I’m here as a cake to deliver her final edict: Eat me.

Derek McCormack’s most recent books are Castle Faggot, a novel, and Judy Blame’s Obituary, a collection of essays about fashion; he is at work on a book about Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

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