book review: Vivienne Westwood – An Unfashionable Life

Vivienne in her famous rocking horse shoes.

This biography chronicles Vivienne’s life from childhood to her sixties, documenting the inward and outward influences that helped shape her into the King’s Road punk, outrageous innovator, and renegade style icon she is known as today. As emphasized in the book, Vivienne always sought attention (declaring at the birth of sister, Olga that she would “‘dead her and put her in the dustbin’”) and adding provocative details to her school gymslips. This originality married with a nostalgic affection for traditional English textiles would become one of Vivienne’s trademarks, as seen in her Harris Tweed and Anglomania collections.

Vivienne was famously uninterested in trends, seeking to create what appealed to her own artistic sensibilities, causing immeasurable stress for those working with her. Her use of impractical fabrics and cuts made her designs “extremely complicated to manufacture, as she [rejected] any recognizable template or pattern”. In the business world, Vivienne’s companies dealt with constant financial mismanagement, largely stemming from employees taking advantage of her trust (or oversight, as the case may be) and swindling money. Vivienne fought for recognition among her contemporaries, such as John Galliano (with whom she unsuccessfully competed to become Design Director of Dior in the mid-90s), Alexander McQueen and Jean-Paul Gaultier, many of whom restructured Vivienne’s original concepts, such as the corset and bustle, to be more commercially successful.

Naomi Campbell’s famous topple in 10 inch super-elevated lace-ups,
Anglomania gown, corset from A/W 90 Portrait collection.

An Unfashionable Life is fascinating for how it charts a woman who influenced latter 20th century fashion so deeply. Vivienne’s use of sloganned tee-shirts – a design concept which deserves partial accreditation to Malcolm McLaren – ranging from the provocative “naked cowboys shirt” to text based styles, such as, “The best accessory is a book” – reflect Vivienne and her followers’ reactions to mainstream fashion. When 80s power dressing meant androgynous pantsuits, Vivienne reintroduced the corset and celebrated the shape of a woman.

Vivienne was (and probably is) not easy to work with, but this book explores her unrelenting quest for personal satisfaction. Each collections has its own philosophy, and Vivienne’s mix of slapdash (sometimes even getting seamstresses and friends out from the audience to make adjustments, while allowing models to style themselves) and studied, has created a completely unique look. Although all her collections have not been critical successes, An Unfashionable Life provides a detailed and highly readable guide to the Westwood evolution. It provides array of perspectives, including those of her critics, to depict a designer who thrived off intentional and unintentional marriages between challenging the status quo and embracing her English roots.

famous Westwood attitude.

Highly recommended for those interested by Vivienne, the evolution of 60s street-style or contemporary fashion’s roots. Viv covered a lot of territory, and this book has the substance to match.

Vivienne Westwood – An Unfashionable Life by Jane Mulvagh, Harper Collins, 1998
review by Esmé Hogeveen

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3 thoughts on “book review: Vivienne Westwood – An Unfashionable Life

  1. I love Vivienne Westwood! I’m not much into high fashion, but she’s definitely one of my favorite designers. I’ll be sure to check out this book, thanks for the review :)

  2. Ah dear old Viv. I love her because she’s one of those designers who transcends fashion and incorporates other art forms into her designs (in this case, punk music). Ah god, that sounded pompous. (tbh I’m not even sure if thats the correct use of the word “transcends.”)
    Being said, as much as I love Vivienne Westwood, you do *not* go into battle against Galliano! It’s just suicide! (I’m sorry. I’m biased. I have a thing for his mustache).
    Great review Esme xx

  3. Thanks for the review Esme. I’ve never heard of their slogan t-shirts. I agree, “the best accessory is a book”!! I’d be curious to read more about her work with McLaren and the SEX boutique in particular.

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