Culture

Film & Television

‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’, an incomplete portrait

By Tristen Harwood
This nostalgic documentary about the eminent designer raises more questions than it answers

“It’s so boring,” moans Vivienne Westwood, the reluctant subject of Lorna Tucker’s debut feature documentary, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (2018). In the opening scene, the eminent designer sits in a heather-purple velvet armchair, her posture louche, a bored look on her face, wearing a midnight-blue dress purposefully torn at the shoulders and hemline. Through the documentary, Westwood resists Tucker’s attempts to glean insight into her personal life and role in punk and fashion history. Westwood’s disdain for the documentary process is more than punk attitude – now that Westwood has shifted her focus to environmental activism, she’s irritated by Tucker’s fascination with punk subculture and fashion.

The documentary positions a young Westwood at the centre of punk’s origins in London, where she created what she labelled “confrontation dressing”. In 1965 she met impresario Malcolm McLaren, who went on to manage the Sex Pistols. They had a son, Joe Corré, together, and in 1971 opened Let It Rock on Kings Road in London, where they fortified the relationship between music, fashion and subcultural identity. Under the name Seditionaries the store served as the locus of the volatile and apocalyptic punk style.

Their clothes offered symbolic forms of resistance to the mainstream. They made use of fetish wear and zippers, inflammatory language and incendiary graphics (swastikas, pornography, the Queen with a safety pin piercing her lips). Tartan pants, Edwardian jackets and kilts, muslin tops and tailored shirts were slashed and torn up, then precariously pieced back together with buckles, straps and safety pins, undermining the original clothes’ pre-existing social meanings.

Inadvertently giving insight into the trajectory of punk and Westwood’s career, one scene shows an archivist at the Victoria and Albert Museum fawning over a Seditionaries white muslin bondage top. On the chest is an image of an inverted crucifix with a swastika and the Sex Pistols lyric “I am an antichrist”, positioned below the word “DESTROY”. Finished with extended sleeves and straitjacket clasps, the top is a brash statement of opposition to the very institutions that have ensured its preservation and recuperation as an important British cultural object.

By 1977, punk was absorbed into the mainstream, with the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols reaching number one in the British pop charts. Westwood, the perennial outsider, moved into high fashion, finding a more subtle way to subvert social standards. Westwood and McLaren’s first runway collection was “Pirate” (Autumn/Winter 1981). Inspired by Romantic-era paintings, Westwood plundered historical clothing designs, placing them out of context. Tucker’s archival runway footage shows models dressed like pirates and dandies in drop-crotch buccaneer trousers and oversize tops, draped with sashes, bustling and gambolling down the runway.

Dislocating clothing and accessories from their intended time and place, Westwood distorted the codes of high fashion, which in turn created an atmosphere of disrepute rather than glamour. Tucker doesn’t pursue how it was that Westwood maintained a subversive approach while succeeding in and influencing fashion, with her innovative tailoring, sense of theatre and ability reinvigorate historical styles. Instead, the documentary focuses on the public and media ridicule Westwood received early in her career. A 1988 BBC television clip shows Westwood being mocked by presenters intent on humiliating her while a live audience laughs.

Just prior to the release of Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Vivienne Westwood officially stated that she and her company did not support the documentary. Apparently, Westwood had been under the impression that Tucker was making a documentary about her environmental activism. These days, Westwood uses her public platform to protest fracking and government responses to climate change, and to urge those interested in fashion to consume less.

In the documentary, Westwood’s role as an activist is a rushed addendum to the patchy visual history of her role in fashion and contradictory position as a critic of the very consumerism that sustains her brand. Westwood is not anti-consumerist; rather, she works within the system and uses provocative slogans, urging buyers to take consumption more seriously: this is left unexplored by Tucker.

The best expression of Westwood’s activism is the connection Tucker makes between Westwood the punk and Westwood the activist, and the crisis and chaos that both are steeped in. Tucker achieves this using a shot of Westwood on a Greenpeace boat in Antarctica towards the film’s end that clearly recalls an earlier shot of the Sex Pistols blasting “God Save the Queen” from a boat in the Thames.

In the new footage produced by Tucker, Westwood is often shown at work. While her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, leads the brand’s design team, Westwood is shown picking over the fine points of design and construction. She threatens to throw it all in because she’s unhappy with a hemline on a sweater. The documentary focuses on Westwood’s eccentricity and concern with details, overlooking the ingenuity and commitment it’s taken Westwood to sustain an independent fashion brand in the heavily corporatised fashion industry, in which many brands have been bought out by conglomerates, like Kering and LVMH, to survive.

Tucker covers a lot of ground and shows some great early footage that traces Westwood’s work from early punk-fashion influencer to lauded fashion icon. Yet she leaves the conflict between Westwood’s environmental activism and her active role in the exceedingly polluting fashion industry unresolved.

The elusive Westwood is an antagonistic subject for Tucker. The abundant use of archival footage is fine if you’re interested in British punk and fashion nostalgia, a moment when clothing had the potential to disrupt authority. Now, dressing punk has little effect, as Vetements demonstrated with their Autumn/Winter 2017 presentation, placing “punks” alongside “stockbrokers” and “brides”: the once subversive is now fully commodified.

Nostalgia doesn’t offer insight into Westwood’s influence. This would require closer analysis of her individual collections and the fashion industry than the documentary attempts. With Westwood slipping between subject and narrator, the documentary shifts between what Westwood wants the audience to know and the biographical narrative Tucker wants to tell.

 

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is in cinemas now.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist © VWI FILMS LTD 2018

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