Fashion, Sex and Drag: The Strange Legacy of Vivienne Westwood

I was 13 years old when I discovered Vivienne Westwood. Music came first. From the moment I heard the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, I was hooked. Within a few months, I was spending my pocket money on Westwood’s fake design – tartan slave trousers. My punk look was completed with ripped t-shirts held together with safety pins, a denim jacket customized with bullet holes on the back, and Doc Martens boots.

I’ve only recently realized that what draws me most to the punk aesthetic pioneered by Vivienne Westwood in the mid-to-late 1970s is its weirdness. Since the beginning of her design career, Westwood’s clothes have challenged and subverted gender norms, which is probably why she is so revered by the LGBTQI+ community.

Westwood began selling clothes in a shop at 430 Kings Road, Chelsea with his then friend Malcolm McLaren in 1971. The third and most radical incarnation of this store, SEX, sold rubber and leather fetish gear alongside McLaren and Westwood designs, including the original slave pants I coveted as a teenager.

This is where the weird, S&M aesthetic of punk comes in.

Photo of SEX scanned from an adult magazine called Gallery International (1976).

Weird aesthetics

Queerness as a theoretical and cultural idea was brought to prominence in the 1980s by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Simply put, queer theory is the study of everything outside of heteronormatives.

Heteronormativity posits heterosexual desire as the normative (how things should be) system of society. This includes the belief in the gender binary and implies defined male/female, masculine/feminine behavior. Everything else, including sexual behavior perceived as deviant, such as sadomasochism, is abnormal (strange).

It was at the SEX store in 1975 that McLaren and Westwood first sold the iconic gay cowboy T-shirt. A theme chosen more for shock value than alliance. It features a design appropriated by American artist Jim French with two men in cowboy clothes without pants, penises almost touching, while one arranges a handkerchief around his friend’s neck.

The text below: “Hey Joe. Have you been anywhere lately? No, it’s all played out, Bill. Gettin’ too straight”, ironically, laments the loss of queer spaces. It is a prophecy of the once hidden world of gay subculture now exposed to the mainstream.

The iconic gay cowboy t-shirt designed by McLaren and Westwood.
Vivienne Westwood website

This t-shirt led to indecency prosecutions for store clerk Alan Jones, as well as Westwood and McLaren. It became a staple of the punk uniform worn by Siouxsie Sioux, Sid Vicious and many others.

Sid Vicious wearing his gay cowboy t-shirt in 1977 (photo by Dennis Morris).
Wikimedia Commons.

A challenge to the gender binary

Queerness and the challenge of fashion’s gender binary have been a part of Westwood’s designs since she moved her clothes from the high street to the haute couture runway.

For her Pirate collection in 1981, the designer let the models, male and female, choose the clothes themselves, regardless of gender. It was a style sold at Worlds End, the latest incarnation of 430 Kings Road, redesigned to evoke a pirate ship. The store remains a Mecca for Westwood devotees today. The pirate look was worn by Malcolm McLaren’s musical protégés Adam Ant, Boy George and Bow Wow Wow: New Romantic dandies who played with gender and androgyny.

There were men in skirts and dresses on the Vivienne Westwood runways long before that, with Harry Styles, Sam Smith and Jaden Smith all wearing non-binary clothes to red carpet events.

Vivienne Westwood and models pose for photographers at her Fall/Winter 2020 Fashion Week showcase in London, Friday, February 14, 2020.
Grant Pollard/Invision/AP

The recent fashion for men wearing pearl necklaces and pearl earrings was equally foreshadowed by Westwood, who had men in pearls on the runway since the early 1990s. Westwood pearl jewelery has never been so fashionable. Timothee Chalamet cemented his reputation as a “pretty boy” when he wore a Vivienne Westwood pearl choker to the premiere of Bones and All in Rome last year.

Westwood and drag culture

When Westwood died on December 29, 2022, the fashion and entertainment community came out to pay their respects. Among them were many of the stars of the global reality TV hit RuPaul’s Drag Race. This year, RuPaul’s Drag Race kicks off its 15th season in North America. Its move to MTV (it remains on Stan in Australia) provided a mainstream space for the subversive queer culture of drag.

British drag star Bimini Bom Bulash took to Instagram, posting:

Heartbroken by the news. If only the world was more like Vivienne Westwood. Vacation at Power Vivienne. My inspiration forever.

The winner of the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Vivienne, who takes her name from the designer, posted:

Vivienne Westwood is the woman who showed me that I could do anything, I could wear whatever I wanted, she was an ICON and I lived my life through her in a way.

Raja Bliznazzi, who took the crown on the third season of Drag Race, is considered the first and foremost of fashion queens. Her runway look from episode five: a high-hair wig, corset and pants printed with pastel shapes reminiscent of French Rococo paintings is strongly reminiscent of Westwood’s Portrait collection from 1991. If you listen closely, you can even hear the show’s judge Michelle Visage saying “here’s Westwood” as Raja takes to the main stage.

Under the creative direction of Westwood’s husband, Andreas Kronthaler, the brand has become a leader in non-binary fashion. Skirts, dresses and heels are worn by models regardless of their gender.

Under Kronthaler’s leadership, former Drag Race contestants and famous fashion queens became part of the Westwood family. Drag queen Milk was photographed for the Westwood SS2018 campaign by Jurgen Teller to coincide with the opening of a new New York boutique in 2018. Queens Miss Fame and Symone sat front row at Vivienne Westwood’s Paris Fashion Week shows. wearing the designer’s clothes in 2021.

Miss Fame and Symone attend the Vivienne Westwood Spring Summer 2022 ready-to-wear fashion show presented in Paris, Saturday, October 2, 2021.
Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

Now, some 30 years after I first became aware of her work, I am fortunate enough to own Westwood clothing. Wearing one of her kilts, billowing toga shirt, flimsy “alcohol pants” and pirate boots raises eyebrows and admiration in equal measure. Westwood once said, “your life is more interesting if you wear impressive clothes.”

I can confirm that. Her outfit makes me feel more authentically myself as a queer person.

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