From corsets to conservation: How Vivienne Westwood broke boundaries in fashion

Few people disrupted fashion quite like Dame Vivienne Westwood, who has died aged 81.

Known for her counterculture aesthetic and commitment to the environment, fashion wouldn’t be where it is today without Westwood carving a unique path.

She continued working until the end of her life, with the announcement on her Instagram page saying she “continued to do the things she loved, up until the last moment, designing, working on her art, writing her book, and changing the world for the better”.

These are some of the ways she broke boundaries:

– She brought a punk aesthetic to high fashion

Vivienne Westwood's clothes
Westwood’s designs shaped counterculture in the 1970s (Alamy/PA)

With her provocative and boundary-pushing designs, Westwood helped set the fashion tone for the punk movement in the 1970s.

She opened a shop with her then-partner Malcolm McLaren on the King’s Road in 1971 – later called Sex, which was frequented by some of the biggest names in punk, including the Sex Pistols, who McLaren managed.

During this time, Westwood’s designs set the tone for punk fashion with ripped T-shirts, safety pin embellishments and tartan accents.

Westwood often used anti-establishment iconography in her clothes, particularly subverting traditional images of the monarchy.

In 1998 she told The Independent: “I was a punk before it got its name. I had that hairstyle and purple lipstick. Girls stopped me in the street and said, ‘Look at the state of that’.”

– She made the environment a central focus

Vivienne Westwood on the runway in 2012 in a T-shirt saying 'climate revolution
Westwood on the runway in 2012 in a T-shirt saying ‘climate revolution’ (Yui Mok/PA)

The climate crisis is top of the agenda now, with brands such as Stella McCartney using eco-friendly materials and emphasising the need for sustainability in fashion.

But when Westwood started talking about sustainability in 1980s she was seen as something of an outlier.

She used traditional tailoring from Savile Row and put great importance on how garments were made, considering the supply chain long before many other major players did.

Her work was always political, and she made her explicit focus the environment in the 2000s.

In 2012, Westwood appeared on the catwalk during London Fashion Week in a T-shirt saying ‘climate revolution’, and in 2015 she drove a tank near former prime minister David Cameron’s home to protest fracking.

Westwood during an anti-fracking protest in 2015
Joining an anti-fracking protest in 2015 (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Some criticised Westwood’s message to “buy less”, while she still produced multiple new collections a year.

However, this was something she was conscious of, with the Vivienne Westwood website reading: “We know there is a contradiction between our activism and the industry we are part of.

“Fashion creates products which are too often disposable, and which – through their creation, distribution and eventual disposal – can have a disproportionately negative impact on our planet, its wildlife and people.

“We know this and we know we must do better. We have been adapting the way we make our clothes and accessories over the last few years to reflect the growing urgency to change how the industry operates but, in this time of climate crisis, we must go further.”

Westwood continued to post on her blog up until her death.

In November she praised the young activists who threw soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting, writing: “Young people are desperate. They’re wearing a T-shirt that says: Just Stop Oil. They’re doing something.”

– She championed androgyny in fashion

Vivienne Westwood catwalk
Westwood’s aesthetic often blurred the line between traditionally male and female fashion (Ian West/PA)

Over the past few years, androgyny has become big business in fashion, championed by the likes of Brad Pitt, who wore a skirt on the red carpet in August.

This might not have happened without Westwood.

From the beginning of her career, she pushed the boundaries of gender in fashion, putting men in skirts and women in sharp tailoring.

During a TV interview when she was introducing her autumn/winter 1988-89 collection, called Time Machine, Westwood spoke about her male models wearing pearls.

To the giggles from the audience, the interviewer asked: “Tell me about the twinset and pearls for men, has it caught on? I have not seen a lot of men wearing twinsets and pearls.”

Westwood replied: “You might see your bank manager in five years wearing that ” preempting Harry Styles for whom pearls form part of his signature look.

– She constantly subverted expectations

Pamela Anderson in one of Westwood's corseted designs
Pamela Anderson in one of Westwood’s corseted designs (Ian West/PA)

Westwood’s fashion was meant to challenge and subvert expectations.

She first introduced corsetry into her designs in the 1970s, and it remained her signature style in the decades that followed.

With corsets, Westwood was one of the first designers to experiment with the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend, that is still in fashion today.

She used them to make a statement for female empowerment and liberation, challenging their original meaning of restriction.