Book Review – Fashion and Perversity: A Life of Vivienne Westwood and the Sixties Laid Bare

I borrowed this book from the owner of a local friperie (second-hand store) called Wa’ou. The owner’s name is Celine, and she has a raucous personality and an awesome inability to keep her life out of her stories. She’s brash and crackle-snap smart – a no-bullshit store owner who will tell you a flat out that the dress is too big or too tight, and who will sometimes wear a sombrero and moustache to work because she can. She warned me that, potentially, only the first part of Fashion and Perversity was good, and so I’d like to forewarn you that I may be biased by Celine’s enthusiasms, not to mention her dark underlining.

In the first section of Fashion and Perversity the author, Fred Vermorel, literally assumes Vivenne Westwood’s voice. He puts on a big “I” hat and parades around, airing all Ms. Westwood’s laundry, while laying bare her naive submission to(and the cruelties of) her husband, Malcolm McLaren. Masquerading as someone who is still alive in order to tell your version of their life story is a scandalous and tawdry thing to do but, in this case, it works. If you don’t feel like reading much, you can indeed skip the rest. Still, in some sense the book does get even ballsier in the sections where, speaking in his own voice, Vermorel theory-ravages his own scene, basically, and then gives you bits of his own teenage-boy diary to triangulate the theory. I think the entire thing might be a smart twisting of situationist tactics.

Situationism is the movement/theory/millenarian mentality that much of the book describes. Situationism inspired many passionate art-makers in the sixties, and many senseless acts of violence. It was about creating disruptive contexts (like Westwood and McLaren’s famous SEX boutique) to jar the masses out of complacency and to bring about…something else. Taking the parts of this book together, Vermorel seems to suggest, like so many postmodern theorists before him, that situationism was mostly just a rhetorical loop, justifying semirational destruction but offering nothing in exchange.

Beyond this important but familiar argument, I think there’s something else smaller but more interesting going on. The whole book might bea pointed attack on an ego, motivated by a desire to tell the truth and show that Vivienne Westwood was always working in a subtler way, a more intelligent way – a more important way than her loudly vaunted and berated husband, McLaren, who supposedly created punk, was apparently an utter bastard. In this book he is accused of leaving his grandmother to die of starvation, and refusing to buy his little son shoes, while attempting to demolish Westwood’s career as a designer. For what it’s worth, he is even diagnosed – by the author – with Tourette’s.

Vermorel takes time to explain that Westwood worked hard, over decades, to draw fashion history into her own performance of situationism. Not only was Westwood pillaging ideas and ideals from centuries before to reinvent tailoring techniques and before to reinvent tailoring techniques and to deliberately echo scandalizing shapes and lines from other times, she also made clothes that would intentionally slip and fold and fall. The garment would gape and precipitate a set of gestures that were all part of the clothing coming alive, all part of the intangible, but carefully calculated and playfully political, dimensions of her designs.

The thing about this book is that you know it’s just a certain kind of true. It is incomplete, but still a completely valid perspective on events. And it’s utterly entertaining. Seconds after being pomous and ironically self-deprecating, Vermorel deliberately inserts graphic but utterly unsexy bits of sex. This is odd, art-school sociology, and thought it has its niaiseries (problems, sillinesses) it is also utterly dear and rereadable. Both Vermorel and the version of Westwood he adopts seem, though defiant, to quietly ache for you to understand: they were cruel as much as they were coy; stupid kids as much as they were wise publicists and revolutionaries; theoreticians as much as they were joking. Fashion and Perversity: A Life of Vivienne Westwood and the Sixties Laid Bare is a pretty good title, now that I think about it. It is just one life that Fred Vermorel unfolds for us – one among the many life stories that could get wrapped around Westwood, or the rest of us for that matter.

Celine says the first section of the book, where the author writes in Westwood’s voice, always gives her courage. She seems to have appreciated most of those sections were Vermorel-as-Westwood splashes out matter-of-fact relationship drama the likes of which only a Westwood (or Celine) strength character could survive. The fact that this book gives courage is pretty much the highest praise a book can get, I think. So screw scandal and propriety, embrace this brave book and, while you’re at it, begin taking notes for future books on your famous friends. This performative, subjective, autobiographical style has, I declare, a bright future ahead.

by Fred Vermorel, Bloomsbury, 1996
Reviewed by Risa Dickens (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 3)

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