(image scanned from a 1976 issue of Gallery magazine via source)
But before we do, I should note that I think the way the ground was made fertile for the likes of now-Dame Westwood and the band her then-boyfriend created is actually more interesting. Less buzzed about, certainly, than in the dominant narrative, which gives the bulk of the credit for the origins of punk movement to Malcolm McLaren and the scandalous antics of the Sex Pistols, which he formed in 1975.
Vivienne Westwood, who met McLaren in 1965 and had a son with him the following year, didn't begin working with him until 1970, a relationship that lasted into the 1980s. But much of it was spent in the shadow of McLaren's cynical but press-adoring glare. While she was the one behind punk's ripped tees, slogan-emblazoned garments and spiky hair, McLaren liked to take the credit, even describing her once as just his seamstress. He was also physically violent - but, according to Westwood, something of a visionary. "I felt there were so many doors to open, and he had the key to all of them," she recalls. "Plus, he had a political attitude and I needed to align myself." Starting with the boutique McClaren had originally opened in 1971 at 420 Kings Road as Let It Rock. (image)
It went through several name changes, one of the most successful of which was SEX, as four-foot high letters painted an obnoxious pink announced. Above the shop's doorway, McLaren scrawled Craft must have clothes but Truth loves to go naked and the interior decor featured explicit graffiti, red carpeting, rubber curtains and fetish wear. Merch included tees with a trompe-l'œil image of bare boobs (inspired by a shirt produced in the late 60s by a pair of Rhode Island School Of Art students), artist Jim French's cowboys canoodling half naked (1969), the Cambridge Rapist's face hood and texts from "School for Wives" by beat-author Alexander Trocchi which were decidedly pornographic. "The country was a morass of beige and cream Bri-Nylon and their shop was an oasis," recalls Marco Pirroni, of the group Adam and the Ants. "It took great liberalism and bravery to wear rubber in the street. If you shopped there, you didn't go anywhere else." Or work elsewhere. The shop's notorious assistant, Jordan, had to be put in a first-class compartment by British Rail to commute in safely from Sussex, so threatening, apparently, were her rubber ensembles, aggressive coiffure and over-the-top makeup. (the inside of SEX photographed by William English in 1975 - source)
But if the “pogoing, spitting, and safety pins" were all that punk was about, then it would have long ago gone the hasbeen way of the pogo stick. There's an important piece to the punk puzzle that is generally elbowed out of the way in order to name drop...the Sex Pistols, McLaren and all that frantic posturing. "Much more than fabricated attitudes and mass-produced mall fashions," observes musician and writer Josh Jones, there was a DIY ethic that attracted outsiders with dreams, a can-do attitude and a giant obstacle to overcome: The Establishment. That generally snubbed these questionably-dressed rabble rowsers. "Snubs from the majors created opportunities for dedicated kids to build their own labels with little more than volunteer know-how and hometown scene pride," continues Jones. "It’s this kind of communal spirit that is the gift of punk rock." (image)
As was AtomAge magazine, the 1970s underground bible of rubber, vinyl and leather fetish wear, along with the work of indie filmmaker John Samson, who chronicled ordinary folk with a fetish for wearing rubber in his 1977 documentary, Dressing for Pleasure. The film's interviews are surprisingly matter of fact to the point of being almost quaint - regular, middle-age (back when middle aged people looked middle aged) couples who could be discussing the weather, except for being fully clad in rubber. An immediate sensation, the film was banned, which of course made it phenomenally popular with the London punk scenesters. The segment with McClaren wearing a black gimp mask in SEX were used during the 2004 London career retrospective of Vivienne Westwood.
Despite McLaren's misrepresentation of Westwood's role in their creative collaboration, she was the one with the fashion vision. Much of what she's now famous for, including introducing the corset into everyday use, she found by looking to the past, teaching herself about fashion design by taking apart old clothing to learn how it was constructed. She has always been particularly partial to traditional Scottish tartans and historical 17th and 18th century ways of draping clothing. So old, it became new again - new enough for the likes of an iconoclast like Westwood. "I was messianic about punk," she recalls, "seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way."
And yet, for all the bondage and BDSM attire, the safety pins and razor blades, the toilet-flush chains adorning clothes and spiky dog collar necklaces strapped around necks, Westwood wore her get-ups for the same reason any girl has ever played dressup. "All the clothes I wore people would regard as shocking, I wore them because I just thought that I looked like a princess from another planet." (image)
Her new self-titled autobiography co-written with Ian Kelly is available at Amazon.com.