Vivienne Westwood: The Punk Years
It was my daughter, a few days ago, who told me " But mom, I'm really amazed that as an image energy coach, you haven't made a news story about the disappearance of Dame Vivienne Westwood. It is still one of the great stylists and ladies of the image ».
She was absolutely right. So I got to work and I give you a first episode, and not worlds, of the life of Dame Vivienne Westwood. Enjoy as we say here.
To fully understand her background, you must know that Vivienne Swire was born in 1941 during the Second World War in a village in the north-west of England, Tintwistle in Cheshire. And, when I write village, it is indeed a village in question, a village which since the Second World War has never exceeded 1400 inhabitants. Tintwistle is located in a valley on the border of two worlds. In his time Tintwistle was inhabited by a few farmers and workers. To the west, about fifteen kilometers away, is Manchester, Manchester which was for a time, in the middle of the XNUMXth century, the largest industrial city in the world. The Swire family are working-class and live on one of these streets with small, similar single-family houses. Their neighbors are workers. This is the environment that Vivienne knows and frequents, an environment that encourages her assertive and rebellious side.
On the other hand, to the east, immediately outside the village, there are sparsely inhabited, mountainous areas dotted with small glacial valleys with cliffs, torrents, lakes and heather moors. This is where Vivienne escapes, takes refuge, connects with nature, walks and dreams, an environment that helps her develop her sensitivity and her natural artistic side. It is there, in this village of Tintwistle that Vivienne spent her childhood and part of her adolescence. His education and his culture will be marked by these two environments. On the one hand the working world through her father who works in a factory, on the other nature where she can escape on foot in a few minutes.
The post-war period had a profound effect on this first industrial center in the world, made up of Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield. These are years of depression, factories close, jobs disappear and Tintwistle is hit hard. In 1958 the family decided to leave Tintwistle and emigrated to Harrow, about fifteen kilometers northwest of London. Vivienne is 17 years old and arrives in another universe, a universe that she feels full of potential and which opens up the fields of the possible to her. She feels that she will be able to fully cultivate and express her creativity and artistic dimension. Enthusiastic, she enrolled at the Harrow Art School in art jewelry. But here it is, her popular origins and the culture which are attached to it and result from it catch up with her and she is as much marginalized as she is marginalized. The shock is brutal, she picks up at the end of the first trimester feeling as she will say " that she didn't see how a working-class girl could make a living in the art world ". She then worked in a factory while taking courses to become a schoolteacher. She became a teacher, which did not prevent her from creating jewelry that she sold on the Portobello market, a bit like the Flea Market at Porte de Saint Ouen in Paris. In 1961, at the age of twenty, at a ball, she met Derek Westwood, a very good dancer as she would say. She is in love and Vivienne and Derek get married in 1962.
Opportunity for Vivienne to express her creativity and her sense of beauty: she designs and manufactures her own wedding dress. In 1963, at the age of twenty-two, she gave birth to a son, Benjamin Westwood.
In 1965, she met Malcolm McLaren. At this point in Vivienne's biography, it is appropriate to take an interest in the character of Malcolm McLaren. Vivienne and Malcolm will form a couple that will complement each other perfectly on an artistic level, allowing the full expression of their reciprocal creativity.
Malcolm got everything Vivienne didn't. He comes from a family of the most "posh" as the English say, from the rich bourgeoisie, especially on the side of his mother, Emily Isaacs, a diamond family of Sephardic origin. Her father, Peter McLaren, an engineer in the Royal Army, leaves the marital home on the pretext of his wife's repeated infidelities. Malcolm is two years old. He is entrusted to his maternal grandmother whose motto is: “To be bad is good because to be good is simply boring"(Being bad is fine because being good is just plain boring) an attitude which clearly reflects a typically English tradition which allows the eccentricity of certain privileged people to express themselves. An attitude that will mark Malcolm's schooling, which begins with an education at home with private tutors, then several private schools offering him a wide range of experiences: he begins with a Jewish Orthodox school only for boys, then an ecumenical Christian school founded in 1680. It is finally a “grammar school”, a public institution but which, by its mode of selection and recruitment, favors the children of the bourgeoisie. He is brilliant and finishes his schooling at 16 years old.
He begins a university career in the field of art, registers and takes courses in several London universities, some of his teachers are known artists. The year he graduated, he organized a “free art” festival, a landmark extravaganza. He is a rebel at heart with a protesting spirit, a protesting spirit that does not stop at the field of art. He has sympathy for the Situationist International, he demonstrates in front of the United States Embassy against the war in Vietnam by burning the United States flag, is arrested. In May 1968, he took the direction of France to join the insurrection. At the border, he was arrested again and taken back.
In 1965, Vivienne met Malcolm McLaren. She is twenty-four, Malcolm nineteen. She divorces, marries Malcolm. It is the birth of a couple where one will bring to the other the part of the social world that they lack to build their unity and fully express their creative vocation. Through Malcolm, Vivienne will grasp the codes of the bourgeoisie and understand
« how a working-class girl can make a living in the art world”.As for Malcolm, through Vivienne and his popular origins, he will be able to be something other than the easy rebel of a son of the bourgeoisie who has benefited from all the privileges and advantages of his class.
Malcolm and Vivienne begin by renting a store located at 430 King's Road, a street already steeped in clothing and fashion, notably through Mary Quant, ten years Vivienne's senior, also from the working classes and still in this world. *. Malcolm sells her collection of 1950s rock vinyls there as well as re-customized vintage furniture combining a radio and a record player, while Vivienne incorporates Malcolm's provocative ideas into second-hand clothes that she sews up or even refurbishes in the back room, all in the style of the 1950s. The store is called " let it rock ". The shop became the meeting place for the “Teddy Boys”, the first post-war expression in Great Britain of young people from the working classes who differentiated themselves from their elders by, among other things, their clothing.
Their models are the heroes of US films from the early 1950s, in particular the emblematic Johnny Strabler of L'Equipée Sauvage played by Marlon Brando. The film tells the story of two gangs of bikers who invade a peaceful and well-meaning small Californian town and wreak havoc. Marlon Brando becomes the rebel icon. On its release, the film caused a scandal, it was censored and banned in several states of the United States and several European countries. Marlon Brando's outfit: t-shirt, blue jeans, boots, leather jacket became the rallying sign of popular youth who challenged, jostled, mocked the well-meaning tranquility of 1950s society.
First the jeans. You should know that when the film was released in 1953, in the United States jeans were the working clothes of workers and nothing else, of those who worked hard manually and who knew their place in society. Jeans are still unknown in Europe. In the 1950s, wearing jeans for a young American working class meant rebelling, breaking social conventions, standing out. So much so that parents refuse to buy them and you get kicked out of high school if you wear them. A spirit that will strongly influence rock culture. In the sixties with their shop let it rock it is exactly in this line that Malcolm and Vivienne fall. Their shop became the rallying point for young protesters from the working classes who wanted to rock the boat of quiet and well-meaning society, it was the time when the shop was frequented mainly by the Teddy Boys. In 1971, Malcolm and Vivienne became owners of the store. *(Reference: our news on Mary Quant)
Vivienne and Malcolm's designs appear in theater and film productions like The Rocky Horror Show and That'll Be The Day.
In 1973, Malcolm and Vivienne go to New York to participate in the “National Boutique Fair”. It was during this fair that a man named Sylvain Sylvain, who also had a stand there, appreciated the style of their Let it Rock clothing line. At the end of the fair, it is customary for exhibitors to sell their collection. Sylvain Sylvain brings two of his friends, David Johanson and Johnny Thunders, and all three buy a good part of their collection. In fact Sylvain Sylvain is the guitarist and pianist of a New York group the new york dolls and his buddies are the other members of the orchestra. The current passes immediately between them and Vivienne and Malcolm, the New York Dolls invite them to come and listen to them at the Mercer Arts Center. Vivienne and Malcolm are conquered by the group.
The new york dolls, Velvet Underground, two New York bands, and stooges from Michigan with Iggy Pop, are historically part of the first punk-rock orchestras, a musical current that felt that the rock and roll scene had gone astray, had lost its soul, had let itself be tamed. To be able to consider Simon and Garfunkel as rock and roll as well as good-natured Californian hippie idealism as part of it showed that this music no longer rocked anything. To be rock and roll was to be rebellious, wild, to go for the simplest, the shortest, the strongest, the most direct. More than technical prowess, more than musical virtuosity, simplicity. Self-organize through networks of small venues, maintain freedom of expression. Not playing in mega halls and other mega festivals, self-producing and going through independent labels, that's punk-rock.
Malcolm and Vivienne see through the New York Dolls the link that aesthetically and politically relates them to Punk-rock to such an extent that Vivienne becomes the costume designer of the new york dolls et
dresses them all in red. Their collaboration goes even further, Malcolm becomes the promoter – manager of the orchestra. It is with Malcolm that they produce their two albums new york dolls and in 1973 Too Much Too Soon in 1974, two albums which became the most popular cult records on the rock scene. It was also with Malcolm that the New York Dolls toured Britain and France before the band broke up.
Strongly inspired by the New York scene, Malcolm and Vivienne are evolving the aesthetics of the boutique at 430 King's Road, London. Having spent that time in New York gives them a head start on the London scene, as far as punk-rock is concerned. As a result, the name of their shop becomes " Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die » in a more pure punk style adapted to the Guy Debord ( Too eager to live too young to die ). This is when Vivienne and Malcolm inaugurate a range of leather clothing with studs.
It is the place, if there is one, where all that matters for the nascent European punk-rock movement can be found. It is a broth of culture where ideas, trends, styles are exchanged, confronted, defined, strengthened. Several individuals who will mark this new culture work in the shop. Vivienne maintains the troops, which is not an easy task with such strong and marked personalities. She has the advantage of age, she is past her thirties, unlike the rest of the gang who are often not twenty years old, and of her popular origins, the two are the weight so that everyone manages to live together . It's a real tribe!
In New York, Vivienne and Malcolm have contacts with the BDSM people and see the link that exists between this environment and Punk-rock. Suddenly they integrate all the BDSM paraphernalia in their collection and in 1974 once again the shop changes its name and simply becomes SEX.
The facade of the shop features each of the three letters of the word SEX in a 150 cm high red plastic foam. The interior of the store is covered in graffiti from Valerie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto hung on chicken wire, black rubber curtains cover the walls and red carpet covers the floor.
Vivienne and Malcolm's creations tackle sexual and social taboos: t-shirts bearing images of the Cambridge rapist's hood, semi-naked cowboys, trompe l'oeil breasts and pornographic texts extracted from the book School for Wives by beat author Alexandre Trocchi. Also featured are sheer jeans with plastic pockets, zippered tops, bleached and dyed shirts adorned with silk patches bearing the likeness of Karl Marx and anarchist slogans. The shop is well stocked with BDSM clothing and items created by Vivienne and Malcolm or purchased from vendors like Atomage, She-And-Me and London Leatherman.
Visual 7: Jordan in red
From morning to late at night there is a continuous stream of characters, both from the artistic avant-garde and from the popular classes who are out of fashion, including many musicians. Vivienne's collections are increasingly noticed and appreciated by the protesting fringe, both popular and bourgeois. In the shop, their personalized, ripped t-shirts emblazoned with anti-establishment slogans and graphics and their black strappy bondage pants inspired by sadomasochistic costumes are going like hotcakes. The store becomes the mecca of protest fashion. The fact that Ken Russell asked Vivienne to be the costume designer for his film Mahler” brought him recognition as a stylist and made him appreciate by a wider audience.
In 1975 a group is looking for a new singer. Malcolm introduces them to John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten who works at the store. An Irishman, a strong personality if there is one, who doesn't mince his words, provocative, with a style of dress that will mark the punk movement. He is auditioned and hired. A new group is born: The Sex Pistols.
Johnny Rotten is a pure product of the working class if not of the lumpen proletariat. His parents are Irish emigrants who came to settle in north London in an area inhabited mainly by Jamaican and Irish workers. A violent neighborhood where they stay in a two-room apartment with outside toilets. John Lydon was born in 1956. He is the eldest of four boys. Very quickly, he will be responsible for these three young brothers, his mother being seriously ill. He describes himself as a shy, introverted child who hates school where he is regularly beaten with sticks in the English fashion of the time. He spends his summer holidays with his maternal grandparents in County Cork in Ireland.
Malcolm is the manager of the Sex Pistols. He has a precise vision of the direction he wants to give to the group: he wants to make it the expression of a movement of "hard and tough" young people, a movement that embodies the radical spirit of sixty- eightard, situationism, anti-establishment, provocation and a good touch of Dadaism.
On November 6, 1975 the Sex Pistols performed at the Saint Martin School of Art. A small but enthusiastic audience begins to follow them. They continue with many concerts off the circuit, in local venues. Rotten regularly calling out to the audience during these concerts, from time to time dropping: " Bet you don't hate us as much as we hate you!"(I bet you don't hate us as much as we hate you! "). Rotten has his own body language, facial expressions and energy. Concerts that often end in English-style fights. A dynamic is created making the Sex Pistols the torchbearer of this protest movement of a youth who does not see his life blending into the daily grind of their elders. The fifties are long gone.
In 1976, Malcolm got the Sex Pistols to appear on Bill Grundy's Today Show on the BBC at prime time. The whole group is there, plus four groupies from the Bromley Contingent, in all there are eight. Bill Grundy is not too aware of what punk-rock is and what awaits it. Exchanges between Bill Grundy and the Sex Pistols follow, and from the outset the communication is out of phase and uncouth. Bill Grundy no longer controls anything. At one point a groupy calls out to him " I always wanted to know you". Overwhelmed Grundy replies “ after the show ! ". The Sex Pistols jump at the chance and call him a pervert and name it. Unlike the Sex Pistols, all of Bill Grundy's notoriety will come down to this evening with the Sex Pistols. England discovers punk-rock and does not believe her eyes or her ears, she is flabbergasted, offended to the highest degree. But for young people with a rebellious spirit, it's a masterstroke, the Sex Pistols become their group.
Following their invitation to the Today Show, their music was censored on the biggest channels, including the BBC. EMI, then A&M, their successive production houses, let them go. It was then that Richard Branson jumped at the chance and Virgin signed them. Their first single Anarchy in the UK is an anthology piece of rock history. As for god save the queen, their second single is more than a piece of anthology, a question of intensity, energy released, rhythm, verbal sequence, it's the best.
1977 is not only Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee but it is also her birthday, that is to say. For the English, it's been preparing for months and months if not years, and that from England to Canada via Australia. Coincidence or not, the single of the Sex Pistols God Save the Queen was released on May 27, 1977, with lyrics like: " God save the queen The fascist regime They made you a moron A potential H bomb…”.
On June 7, 1977, Jubilee year, Jubilee month and Jubilee day, the idea is to have the Sex Pistols play on a barge in front of the Palace of Westminster, just that! Richard Branson and Virgin contribute to the rental of the houseboat, the aptly named “Queen Elizabeth”. A party on the barge is organized for this day. Journalists, writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, all these fine people accompanied by the Sex Pistols are invited. The houseboat travels up and down the Thames for several hours between Westminster, Tower Bridge and Charing Cross Pier. Guests drink and dance, band members drink and are interviewed.
It's when the sun goes down that the Sex Pistols take the stage and start playing Anarchy in the UK before parliament. They follow up with God Save the Queen, No Feelings et Pretty Vacant, as alerted police surround the boat. It is dark when the police approach, cut the sound system and order the captain to return to the Pier. While the passengers are controlled, neither seen nor known, the musicians take the tangent. Malcolm confronts the police and calls them "Fucking Fascists Bastards". The police reacts, arrests him, violents him and places him bluntly in a police van. Vivienne, Richard Branson, his wife and others are disembarked and arrested. Malcolm got what he wanted, he succeeded.
A lawsuit is filed for "Sedition", ie a concerted and prepared uprising against the authority of the State, just that! They risk imprisoning him for life if not the death penalty. Ridicule is not scary! The threat does not hold, on the other hand the shop changes its name once again and becomes Seditionaries. Despite complete censorship on the BBC, several other channels and the refusal to sell the single by several chain stores such as Boots, WH Smith and Woolworth, God Save the Queen reached a second place singles in the UK, a disputed second place and probably rigged so that they did not have the first.
God Save the Queen is recognized as the most censored song in the history of British music. No small distinction.
In October 1977, the Sex Pitols released their first album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, which becomes No. 1 in the charts. This will be their only album
In December 1977 after a few concerts in the Netherlands, Malcolm organized a tour with the evocative title: Never Mind the Bans. And indeed, four of the eight scheduled dates are canceled due to political pressure. On the other hand, on December 25, Christmas Day, the Sex Pistols organize two concerts at the Ivanohe in Huddersfiels. A free matinee for the children of firefighters who have been on strike for nine months and a second paid evening concert and everything!
Imagine The Sex Pistols playing Anarchy in the UK or God Save the Queen to children. Imagine, all the children will have gifts from the stocks of Vivienne and Malcolm's shop and will leave with T-Shirts selling anarchy. Imagine three, four, ten year olds dancing to live Sex Pistols music. At the end of the concert there is cooked food
for all the children offered by the Sex Pistols: the traditional English New Year's Eve meat, vegetables, fruit, a very British layered cake full of cream.
Throughout the afternoon, the musicians mingle with the children. We could expect the worst. Well, not at all. The atmosphere was amazing and explosive, the musicians, Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, John Matlock rediscover their childhood. As for the evening concert, as surprising as it may seem, it will be their last concert in Great Britain. The orchestra separates.
It's the end of Vivienne's punk-rock period. She will still collaborate until the beginning of the 1980s with Malcolm. Today she knows how a working class girl can make a living in the art world ". Punk question she understood as she said " how to create these street heroes while attacking the establishment by looking at all the icons of rebellion over the years and putting them together in original ways ". Westwood's design skills and McLaren's talent for manipulating the media marked the 1970s. But the story continues, as always!