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Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion

Frolicking in the Fertile Fountain of Fabulousness

So what are you wearing right now? Wait, let me guess: jeans, t- shirt, hoody, sneakers, mostly in dark shades. I know I’m right. That’s what we all wear in this country, the only difference in San Francisco is that everything’s usually in shades of gray or black. For a city that the rest of the country thinks is hip and cool (well, they used to think that at least) our collective fashion sense now seems to be located somewhere between Nihilistic Schlump and Generic Gap. What happened to our flamboyance, joie de vivre, and iconoclastic freedom? Vivienne Westwood, whose expansive and uplifting retrospective at the de Young chronicles her amazing career, wants to help.

I must admit, I’m not really a fashionista but I’ve always been a clothes horse. I certainly have my fair share of jeans and t-shirts, mostly because cotton feels so nice against the skin. But I still believe in dressing like a grown-up when I feel like it; this seems to be a skill sadly lacking in the younger generation, and the older one for that matter. I’m a Jhane Barnes and Zegna man myself. I, like Dame Westwood, truly believe that “ have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes.”

But…strangely enough, it was the utterly British rebellious energy of rock and punk that first propelled Dame Westwood into the fashion scene. A working class girl, her mother was a weaver and her father came from a family of shoemakers. She evidently always enjoyed making her own clothes, and seems to have had an inborn sense of style from an early age. To try to convey a sense of her oeuvre and the magnificent command of her art, I imagined her career if she had chosen to be a musician -- it would go something like this: she starts out learning “Stairway to Heaven” on the electric guitar, then becomes intrigued with flamenco, salsa, and baroque harpsichord, then for fun she begins to compose symphonic music inspired by Delibbes, Debussy, Mahler, Wagner, Prokofiev, and Puccini, with generous dashes of Thelonious Monk, Samoan war chants, cowboy songs, Irish ballads and Mexican corridos.

She began to hit her stride upon hooking up with Malcolm McLaren, of Sex Pistols fame, in 1965. Together they basically created the punk aesthetic -- it’s impossible to imagine punk without her outrageous clothes. They opened a clothing store in London named, by turns, “Let it Rock,” “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die,” and finally, “SEX.” Her long collaboration with the enterprising and notorious Mr. McLaren was by all accounts prodigious, extravagant, and exuberant, and they changed the fashion game in a big way.

Some selected impressions of the garments in the show: a black t-shirt with the word “Rock” spelled out in bones and chains (quite cool); a pair of black high heeled shoes straight out of a fem dom dungeon, with multiple clasps and rivets; a recycled sweatshirt with blossoming doublet sleeves; an exquisite black evening gown like a majestic, sinister swirl of squid ink; a row of signature corsets like a series of oversized confections in a Paris patisserie; a sheathe of stretchy black velvet printed with a shiny gold pattern lifted from an 18th century French mirror; a saucy, classic harlequin body suit; a strangely elegant dress in slate blue jersey, trimmed with blue plaid and brown tassels, with a single coy, seductive tuck at the tummy, highlighted with a black “phallus button”; outfits meant to evoke tableaux vivant and the sensation that the wearer had just stepped out of an 18th century painting; a zippered t-shirt with an almost embarrassingly, achingly beautiful erotic poem silk-screened on the front; way-way-over-the-top high heeled shoe like creations made from leather gilded and stamped, polished to a fiendish sheen, puffed and crinkled, or dyed in psychedelic hues; a shimmering, ephemeral gown of knitted silk and iridescent polyamide. That’s only a small taste of what this show has in store.

In one of the video parts of the exhibition, Dame Westwood explains her aesthetic for one of her runway collections. She points out that widening a woman’s hips automatically makes the waist look thinner, and that the “thorax, the upper body, becomes less important.” With the addition of hellaciously high heels, the whole effect is rather that of “ an ant on stilts.” Still, she wants to bring the focus onto the face, which for her is the most erotic part of the body.

In this show, organized by the V&A in London, the largest display that the museum has ever dedicated to a British designer, the full span of Westwood’s oeuvre and her evolution as an artist are amply documented. Her particular blend of iconoclasm and deep respect for history and tradition are fully evident in the joy with which she treats materials, construction, textures, political consciousness, and the female form.

Also, curiously enough, San Francisco is the show’s only U.S. venue. Perhaps this is a sign -- Westwood knows that the citizens of former West Coast center of fabulousness are now more fashion challenged and drowning in mediocrity than ever, and that this exhibition will spark a West Coast fashion revolution -- it certainly has that power. Upcoming fashionistas of the Bay: are you listening?

Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion
At the de Young Museum
Runs through June 10
Tickets: $15