“Just let me talk and get it over with,” Dame Vivienne Westwood sighs at the opening of Lorna Tucker’s debut documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. The 76-year-old fashion designer is probably best known for her role in co-creating the punk aesthetic with Malcolm McLaren in the 1970s, when their most volatile models, The Sex Pistols, infamously disrupted Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee cruise on the Thames with their own piratical flotilla and performance of “God Save the Queen.” (Looking forward to Prince Philip’s sourpuss response in Season 3 of The Crown.)
So how you like me now, Your Royal Highness?
Pretty well, apparently, as Westwood was honored with an appointment to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1992, receiving a subsequent promotion to Dame Commander (DBE) in 2006. And while perceived by the film as tardy, commendation has also arrived from the fashion industry generally: Westwood is a two-time winner of the British Fashion Industry’s Designer of the Year Award, and her brand has achieved a coveted global reach. But her path has always been unconventional, and financially and emotionally rocky, which is the central narrative of the film. Born in northern England during WWII, Westwood started making her own clothes when she was young. Her work in the ’70s and mostly since, as well as her daily wardrobe, retains a DIY quality, marked by bold tartans, prominent zippers, chains, and asymmetrical, torn garments revealing layers of mixed patterns, textures, and historical references, engaging a brash sexuality as well as a sense of mockery, verging on the absurd. Westwood’s is not a post-apocalyptic look, exactly, or exclusively, as we see that she’s more than capable of producing a show consisting of more mainstream, though nevertheless singular couture gowns. But overall, there’s often a suggestion in the work we see here of the resourcefulness of those left out in the cold. It’s a persistently punk sensibility—the punk sensibility. Yet, as her opening dismissal suggests, Westwood has little interest in talking about that period in the film, which leaves history of all kinds to archival footage, to Andreas Kronthaler (Westwood’s husband), to her sons and close associates, and to a quietly respectful fashion curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The designer’s reluctance may largely be due to the difficulty of her break with McLaren, who died in 2010, and who, we’re told, created a good deal of havoc for Westwood as she worked to develop an independent identity and career. And it may also be due to Westwood’s sense of forward motion, her seeming lack of interest in being so completely on the outside as punk’s greatest musical acts have positioned themselves (which Westwood views as a kind of stasis), but in a more general iconoclasm and freedom that speaks the language of some margin of the moment (personal, cultural), carrying a rebellious sneer with a contemporary style.
The record of work on display and the opportunity to peer into the often chaotic organization Westwood heads are the greatest pleasures of this film, which is more of a friendly profile than a critical examination of the designer’s history and influence. One might, nevertheless, have appreciated a more searching consideration of the latter, in particular, provided by more, and more objective, sources, as well as a more detailed look at the manner in which Westwood has pursued her program of activism in recent years. How has she actively wedded this to her design work? How might this be connected to her history as a prickly outsider, and how difficult is it to negotiate this important political agenda and her persona with a desire and need to become a financially secure insider? The contradiction is acknowledged, but curious viewers will have to supplement this tantalizing documentary with their own research.