Dame Vivienne Westwood: Fashion-designing punk pioneer and vocal activist

Dame Vivienne Westwood infiltrated the fashion scene with her eccentric and androgynous designs, ultimately establishing herself as the pioneer of the punk fashion movement.

Up until her death at the age of 81, the designer continued to create eye-catching pieces, often using fashion as a weapon to defend her strongly-held social and political beliefs.

Dame Vivienne was born Vivienne Isabel Swire to parents Gordon and Dora Swire in Tintwistle, Derbyshire, in April 1941.

Royal tour to Europe – Day 8
Vivienne Westwood and her husband Andreas Kronthaler (Chris Jackson/PA)

She was the eldest of three children and after her family moved to London, Westwood enrolled on a jewellery making and silversmith course at the University of Westminster, then known as Harrow Art School, but abandoned the course after the first term.

In search of a new endeavour, Dame Vivienne trained as a primary school teacher while also working in a factory. During this time, she began to sell jewellery she had designed and created from a stall in Portobello Market.

She married her first husband, Derek Westwood, in her early twenties and the couple had a son, Benjamin, before separating.

Dame Vivienne went on to meet Malcolm McLaren – who later became the manager of punk rock band the Sex Pistols – and the pair would design and create clothes together.

The Sex Pistols often wore clothing designed by Dame Vivienne and McLaren, and as the band gained attention, so did the designs.

Vivienne Westwood Backstage – 2015 London Fashion Week
Dame Vivienne Westwood watches a London Fashion Week rehearsal backstage in 2015 (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The couple had a son, Joseph Corre, who later followed in the creative footsteps of his parents and co-founded luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.

With her and McLaren’s designs, Dame Vivienne made a name for herself as one of the pioneers of punk fashion and is often thought of as one of the designers responsible for bringing new wave fashion styles into the mainstream.

Dame Vivienne later opened a shop on the Kings Road and after trialling a variety of names for the establishment she settled on SEX.

The shop was just the beginning for Dame Vivienne, who went on to establish a global fashion brand and show her clothes on the catwalks of London and Paris.

Today, there are Vivienne Westwood stores in the UK, France, Italy, the US and Asia.

British Fashion Awards – London
Model Kate Moss and Dame Vivienne Westwood (Fiona Hanson/PA)

Dame Vivienne later found a new romantic and creative partner in Austrian designer Andreas Kronthaler, whom she married in 1992.

The designer’s creations were eventually worn by the likes of Dita Von Teese, Naomi Campbell and even the fictional Carrie Bradshaw, who opted for a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress for her marriage to Mr Big in the 2008 Sex And The City movie.

After cementing herself as one of the most recognisable faces in fashion, Dame Vivienne used her popularity to front a number of social and political initiatives, including campaigning for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting to avoid being sent to the US to face charges under the Espionage Act.

In July 2020, Dame Vivienne sounded a warning over an Assange “stitch-up” while dressed in canary yellow in a giant bird cage.

She led a colourful band of protesters chanting “Free Julian Assange” outside the Old Bailey in central London.

Suspended inside the cage, she said: “Don’t extradite Assange – it’s a stitch-up.”

Julian Assange extradition case
Dame Vivienne Westwood protesting against the US extradition of Julian Assange (Victoria Jones/PA)

Dame Vivienne was also responsible for designing the wedding dress of Stella Moris for her marriage to Assange at Belmarsh prison in March 2022.

She also lent her support to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, animal rights charity Peta and vegetarianism. She had been a supporter of the Green Party since 2015 and is reported to have donated thousands of pounds to the party.

Dame Vivienne became known for being as eccentric as some of her designs and pulled a number of eye-catching stuns during her lifetime.

When awarded an OBE in 1992, Dame Vivienne wore a perfectly tailored skirt suit with a grey matching hat. Although the outfit appeared demure, Dame Vivienne soon revealed she was not wearing any underwear after she began twirling around for photographers.

She later told the Daily Mail: “I met a man who worked with the Queen and he said she was rather amused by it.”

Vivienne Westwood fracking protest
Dame Vivienne Westwood campaigning against fracking near the home of former prime minister David Cameron (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Following her return to Buckingham Palace in 2006, when she was made a dame, Dame Vivienne once again revealed she was without underwear.

However, on the second occasion she refrained from twirling and instead told the Daily Mail: “Don’t ask. It’s the same answer. I don’t wear them with dresses.”

Dame Vivienne attracted attention when she dressed up as former prime minister Margaret Thatcher for the cover of Tatler magazine and drove a white tank close to the home of former prime minister David Cameron as part of a protest against fracking.

During London Fashion Week in 2012, she appeared on the catwalk herself, wrapped in a banner bearing the words “climate revolution” and bearing lots of flesh underneath.

Speaking ahead of her show, she said that showing her clothes simply provided her with a platform to talk about climate change.

“It’s my job and it gives me an excuse,” she said.

Vivienne Westwood death
The then Duchess of Cornwall with Dame Vivienne Westwood (Chris Jackson/PA)

“Before we’ve had class war, we’ve had rich against poor, do you know what the division is now? It’s idiots against eco-warriors. That’s it.”

Dame Vivienne encountered a number of members of the Royal Family during her career, and while attending a 2012 reception at St James’s Palace to launch a new exhibition of British menswear at an event hosted by the then Prince of Wales, Dame Vivienne said a great part of her respect for the Royal Family was due to Charles.

Some of Dame Vivienne’s best-known creations include the Mini Crini, bustle-skirts, bondage trousers and 12-inch platform shoes, the type which famously tripped up supermodel Naomi Campbell.

She developed the idea of underwear as outerwear – and Madonna’s legendary conical bra worn on her Blonde Ambition tour, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, would probably never have happened if not for Westwood.

She also transformed the corset from a symbol of female repression to one of power and sexual freedom.

In a statement from Dame Vivienne’s representatives announcing her death on December 29, it was said that The Vivienne Foundation, a not-for-profit company founded by Dame Vivienne, her sons and granddaughter in late 2022, will launch next year to “honour, protect and continue the legacy of Vivienne’s life, design and activism”.