Among the fashion industry’s most pioneering and polarizing figures, Vivienne Westwood built a brand on boundary-pushing. Her designs are known for their fun and attention-grabbing flair, often drawing inspiration from a deep-seated appreciation of anarchy and the avant-garde. The Dame’s death in December 2022 sparked an outpouring of tributes from around the world, with fellow designers, supermodels, artists and musicians remembering her as one of Britain’s most beloved iconoclasts.
Born in Derbyshire in 1941, Westwood grew up in a working-class family and attended a local grammar school before studying at Harrow School of Art. In the early ’70s, she began designing clothes with then-partner Malcolm McLaren, who later managed the punk rock band The Sex Pistols. Together, they opened the “Let It Rock” boutique on London’s King’s Road, which specialized in 1950s-style Teddy Boy clothing. The store later changed its name to “SEX” and began selling clothing inspired by fetish wear and BDSM, cementing the couple’s status as fashion world provocateurs.
In the late 1970s, when Westwood began showing her collections on the London circuit, she quickly drew attention for her innovative and daring designs. Her pieces often incorporated elements of historical costume, street style, and punk rock, and she became known for her use of unconventional materials, such as safety pins, zippers, and chains.
Over the decades, Westwood continued to push the boundaries of fashion while also becoming an outspoken activist on a range of social and political issues. She advocated for environmental sustainability and climate change awareness, spoke out against war and imperialism, and supported a number of charities and non-profit organizations, including Amnesty International and Cool Earth.
“Reading matters, it’s the most concentrated form of experience we have.”
A lifelong book lover, Westwood gave a talk at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in 2017, where she made a case for the importance of reading to cultivate empathy. “Empathy is when you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes,” she explains. “Each story is an individual’s vision of the world. You become that person as you read, get another person’s life as you go along, gain perspective on the world; you need your human roots: understand the past to understand the present and by comparison, you will make good decisions for a better world.”
She encouraged the audience to use characters as an opportunity to express themselves differently, discover the world, follow their passions, get out of their heads, and “get a life.” When asked about her favorite books, Westwood shared her top five, all of which revolve around themes of class, power, labor, and social structure.
Vivienne Westwood’s Reading List
The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin
“This book is fascinating, profound, exhilarating. It really is a book of life – a Chinese 18th century classic by Cao Xuequin in five volumes. I read it until I slept whenever I had the time to read it.” -VW
Looking for an Amazon alternative? Support local, independent booksellers by shopping Vivienne Westwood’s reading list on Bookshop.org: