Dame Vivienne Westwood, the noted British designer, is probably best known for introducing punk to the world of fashion in the late 1970s. But in addition to creating a bondage suit replete with zippers and straps, the 77-year-old Westwood has a seemingly endless list of sartorial triumphs. She has a great knack for reinventing historical styles such as corsets and crinolines, has managed to utilize tartan fabric in unconventional ways, was inspired to base her 1983 collection on Haitian voodoo and the artist Keith Haring, has used unorthodox materials such as PVC and rubber, and was responsible for the design of the iconic wedding dress for Carrie Bradshaw in the 2008 film “Sex and the City.”
Recently, the designer utilized a highlight from the Nelson-Atkins collection of Chinese paintings as inspiration for some of the designs from her Spring/Summer 2019 collections.
In the late 11th- early 12th-century handscroll, “Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff,” the artist Qiao Zhongchang illustrated a poem by Su Shi, describing a trip he takes to the Red Cliff, site of an ancient battle. Westwood reproduced the painting on fabric, then superimposed the words, “What’s good for the planet is good for the economy,” before employing it in a variety of her designs.
Westwood’s energy and vision are not by any means limited to her fashion enterprise. She is outspoken about politics and has been an activist for causes as varied as nuclear disarmament and defending habeas corpus. In 2014, she shaved her head to draw attention to climate change. Her current campaign is trying to convince the fashion industry to make the shift to sustainable energy. While it may appear to be a bit of an oxymoron for the head of a fashion empire to be discouraging conspicuous consumption, Westwood is adamant: “if people buy less and choose well, then that encourages great fashion design . . .That’s a wonderful thing to (encourage) — people not buying rubbish, not wasting.”
Westwood is keenly interested in Chinese art, poetry and philosophy as well. She believes that immersing and educating oneself in culture is the best way to counteract the “rotten financial system” and consumerism, dovetailing with her strong opinions regarding the environment. In a manifesto called “Active Resistance to Propaganda,” she writes, “We have the choice to become more cultivated and therefore more human — or by muddling along as usual we shall remain the destructive and self-destroying animal, the victim of our own cleverness.”
In describing her enthusiasm for Chinese art, literature and philosophy, Westwood stated: “The greatest thing ever is a book of Chinese poetry (“Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, compiled by David Hinton”) I read six months ago; it definitely changed my life. If I had my life again, I would study Chinese and I would do calligraphy. Because it’s the secret of the universe. It’s just so creative to put a sentence together. I’m now following the Tao, which is nothing to do with God or religion, it is to do with a system that just describes what the universe is about. That’s all you need to know, and science will never be able to explain it. The beauty and the humanity of this poetry . . .”