I met Vivienne Westwood, very briefly, once. It was at a press conference for her 2007 retrospective at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I was there as a critic, covering the show for KQED’s online Arts & Culture section. (You can read my piece on “Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion” on the KQED website.) I wish I could remember what she wore. I think something dark and tailored. I do remember her cloud of red hair. To me, with her pale, pale skin, and her very red lips, she looked like a postmodern Tudor Elizabeth. 2007 was a surreal time, though my memories of the era’s economic highs have been eclipsed, almost entirely, by what came next.
Re-reading that KQED piece, I still stand by most of my assessments. It was an attempt to do cultural criticism. It is also a reflection of who I was, how I understood the world back then.
But, looking back, I am also shocked to remember that the piece was written by a young woman who had not been to London, yet, who only knew “England” as an abstraction. There was so much that I only understood in theory. When I actually started visiting England regularly, in graduate school, it was like going from black-and-white film to full Technicolor. And then, when I got out of the London/Oxford bubble, and went north to Staffordshire to see the Potteries, I began to understand her mix of references and aesthetics in a whole new way.
Since I wrote that piece, so much has changed. Sidestepping systemic or structural issues, I can safely say that my life has changed. My style. My sense of self. My relationship to clothing. Some of these changes are cultural–I’ve certainly shifted with the zeitgeist–but I’ve also changed cities, and live a different life now. When I wrote that piece about the Westwood retrospective, I mostly only thought about clothing in relation to myself. Since then, I’ve found myself both asking questions about the bigger relationship between style and politics–and retreating from those questions (see: the Covid pandemic). During the Trump presidency, I found myself avoiding mini skirts and body-con dresses (especially since body-con sheaths were a mainstay of the women that I came to think of as “the Fox News demographic”). During the worst months of 2020, I fell into a kind of depressive mourning, wearing voluminous, dark clothing on repeat. When the world “re-opened” after the introduction of RNA vaccines, New York felt like a constant carnival, and I bought bright, colorful dresses to wear out to the party in the streets. I list these examples not because I think my own aesthetic choices are necessarily so very interesting, but because they’re reflective of Westwood’s own deeply held belief in the entanglement of aesthetics and politics. I’ve given examples, from my own life, that are more aesthetic and performative, but as anyone who has investigated the lifecycle of a garment (or any consumer good) knows, consumer choices are also ethical and political choices. We want to forget this.
Westwood, in her later years, was strident about voicing these entanglements. Sometimes, this move seemed strange, even disingenuous. Here is Westwood, the face of a luxury brand, going on and on about ethics or the environment. But I also wonder, how much of our discomfort with the contradictions in her position also reflect our own discomfit regarding who we are, and how we live. We are all compromised. What do I do with my colliding and contradictory desires? I want to be good, and I am overwhelmed. The worst thing I could do, I imagine, would be to shove all those questions to the back of my mind, in order to carry on “as usual.”