I remember hearing a radio interview with Vivienne Westwood (Desert Island Discs, probably) when I was in my early teens, in which she told the story of how she used to wear a pencil-skirt and high-heeled shoes to school. And this struck me as a wonderful thing. If you’d asked me at the time to explain why this was so impressive, I would have been lost – I don’t think the idea that I would want other people to find me attractive or sexy had really formed in my mind yet, although it certainly had its unacknowledged part in my psyche. Something about the soft-spoken intent to provoke and the unselfconscious love of dressing up won me to Westwood forever.
And then there were the clothes. Mini-crinis, bustles, corsets, tottering wedges, tweeds and tartans. I watched their passage through the fashion pages with breathless lust: strange and gorgeous costumes for a world of untouchable theatre and glamour. I wanted – still want – to live in that world. And for a giddy hour in the Sheffield Millenium Gallery, I got to do so.
This ensemble from the Clint Eastwood collection – a tweed shift with assymetrical gather at the waist, and a bobbly handknit cardigan – is the one I’ve dreamed of longest when dreaming of Westwood. The clash of naivety and refinement and downright puerillity (the waist detail is embellished with a miniture rubber penis) is typical Westwood. The ruching looks inexpert, but the shape it draws the dress into is exquisite. The fabric is beautiful, of course. And the cardigan combines rustic texture with refined shape: the elegant bracelet sleeves and cropped length are perfectly matched to the shape of the dress.
One of the most remarkable things about seeing all this Westwood stacked up together is how wearable it all is. Even something like this, from the mini-crini collection (short, full skirts built over fake whalebone frames), looks like something you could swing down the street in. It does swing, actually – a bit like a lampshade. But the sillhouette – fitted on top, nipped in waist, billowing lower section – is one that I go to frequently when I dress myself. Like the dress, it’s highly suggestive the body which would wear it and yet it’s something you could wear to browse a library without getting thrown out.
What makes Westwood distinctively Westwood isn’t that her work is outrageous and sexy – it’s the way in which the outrage and sexiness is invoked. That dildo button wasn’t slapped on anywhere, remember: it was carefully positioned to complement the tailoring of the dress. And in this letterbox jumper, there isn’t just a tit-flashing slash in the fabric: there’s an artful panelled construction which imitates the forms of corsetry in knitting.
The tailoring and the gowns are ravishing, of course, but I’m a knitter mostly and it’s the knitting to which I was mostly drawn. This dress was described in the exhibition as Vivienne’s favourite dress. Though you can’t see much of the detail in my lousy cameraphone shots, this is a feather-and-fan lace knit with bobbles worked sideways. Knitting sideways is generally the best option for a dress or skirt because it eliminates the sagging which afflicts your average piece of vertical stocking stitch and encourages a shapely cling. Here, it also transforms a fairly familiar stitch pattern into something alien and glamorous.
The designs in the exhibition all have some secret to their invention which makes them fascinating far beyond the initial gasps of surprise and desire, and this, I think, is germane to the quote from Westwood on the exhibition guide: “Fashion’s just life, and I do believe that appearances are is everything.” The quote doesn’t come out of that vacuous Trinny and Susanna school of thought (“dress like a Sloane or your friends will all perceive your secret failings”), but from a passionately critical attitude to dress, which understands the finished look as the culmination of hundreds of minute decisions about fabric, cut, silhouette, and audience.
I’m going to wade through her Active Resistance to Propaganda site next, and will report back when I’m done…