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2nd February 2023

Vivienne Westwood: The ‘Queen of British Fashion’ and her orb

We take a look at the life and works of the much-loved Dame Vivienne Westwood, from visiting Buckingham Palace commando to telling people not to buy clothes. Who was the Queen of fashion?
Vivienne Westwood: The ‘Queen of British Fashion’ and her orb
Photo: Mattia Passeri @ Wikimedia Commons

Dame Vivienne Westwood died, at the age of 81, on December 29th 2022, peacefully and surrounded by her family, in Clapham, South London.” The following writing is a tribute to her life and work.

For many young people, Vivienne Westwood’s eponymous brand has provided a pathway into luxury fashion. Her orb logo is sported by many, and her chain and pearl necklaces especially, have become a cult favourite on social media. For those getting into fashion, wearing the orb is a simple way of establishing yourself as stylish.

But the Vivienne Westwood logo is not just a fashion statement. The orb pays homage to where the brand started, and where it went.

In 1971 Vivienne opened a boutique with her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren. At the time, it was known as Let it Rock and catered to the Teddy Boy Subculture – draped jackets, a lot of leather, and clunky shoes. A year later Vivienne re-branded. The shop became Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. Her designs during this period used political slogans such as “Vive le Rock” and “Destroy”, written over a swastika. From the start, Westwood’s designs were provocative, and to many, unacceptable.

The shop’s outrageous t-shirt designs led to the prosecution of Westwood and McLaren under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act; they responded by re-branding once again. This time the shop was renamed Sex. Even more graphic tees, with explicit and offensive imagery, were produced under its name.

Most famous, perhaps, was the “God Save the Queen” t-shirt created by the duo in 1977, the same year that Queen Elizabeth was to celebrate her Silver Jubilee. In the Punk world, the summer of ’77 was known as “the Summer of Hate”. The t-shirt represented what Punk culture stood for: non-conformity, direct action, and rebellion. Little did Westwood know, that despite her anti-establishment attitude and rebellious nature, she would later form a relationship with the Royal Family.

1980 saw Vivienne’s move to the runway. She make her debut at London Fashion Week with a collection inspired by pirates. The designs were colourful and loose fitting, demonstrating her efforts to move away from the Punk genre she was cornered into. Her constant efforts to reform her brand and to re-establish herself were purposeful. In adopting a new aesthetic when her current one peaked in popularity, Vivienne not only maintained her relevance, but placed what she valued most at the forefront of her image: innovation, development, and making progress.

Photo: Woehning @ Wikimedia Commons

One of her most significant collaborations following her move to the high fashion sphere was her work with Harris Tweed. To this day, Harris Tweed is known for its durability and high quality. Using their fabric, Westwood made prince jackets, and princess suits (tailored double-breasted jackets and matching skirts), along with corsets and synthetic crowns. Considering her earlier work, the collection was comically chic and terribly British.

Despite the off-brand design choices, her work with Harris Tweed remained relevant for the duration of her career. Harris Tweed were the first to use an orb logo to mark their products. It protected the Harris name – symbolising the importance of tradition and craftsmanship. Inspired by their ethics, Vivienne created an orb of her own.

In a similar way, the Vivienne Westwood orb represents craftsmanship, quality, and authenticity. She added the surrounding rings to symbolise Saturn. For her, these manifested a future of exploration and innovation.

Indeed, her designs continued to evolve the world of fashion. She was named British Designer of the Year in 1991 and was invited to attend Buckingham Palace to receive an award. Staying true to herself, she attended commando.

Unsurprisingly, Westwood received many complaints in the media, being named disrespectful and crude. She brushed them off, unaffected as always, explaining that “I wished to show off my outfit by twirling the skirt. It did not occur to me that, as the photographers were practically on their knees, the result would be more glamorous than I expected“. The Queen was rumoured to find the affair quite amusing.

Her success and relationship with the British monarchy continued after this. Vivienne was made a Dame in 2006, for her services to British Fashion, went on to design for Princess Eugenie, and won the award for British Designer of the Year on another two occasions.

Despite her fame, Westwood remained true to her values. She famously sent Kate Moss, one of the most prolific models in the early 2000s, down the runway dressed as Marie Antoinette. Alongside her regal outfit, Westwood styled Kate Moss eating ice cream. Instead of using Moss’ fame to promote her clothing, Westwood chose to make a political statement.

Photo: UK in France @ Flickr

In the years before her death, Westwood was very vocal about social and environmental issues. Climate change and human rights were at the top of her agenda. During a 2020 interview with Naomi Campbell, she insisted that she was both an activist and a designer; “It’s very important to look great, if you want to make a point, because then, I think, people will listen to you more.

Vivienne Westwood was perhaps the only designer to tell people not to buy clothes.

Throughout her career, and up until her death, Vivienne Westwood remained faithful to the message that inspired her much-loved orb. She was unfalteringly authentic to herself, progressive, and innovative.


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