Vivienne Westwood at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Crafts magazine, UK
Cynthia Rose

The V&A plus Vivienne Westwood - it seems like the perfect marriage, especially as 2004 marks the maker's 34th year of creating fashion. Yet, while it offers an embarrassment of riches (150 pieces, lavish production values, video and even a soundtrack), "Vivienne Westwood" misses the chance to present an incisive portrait. Instead, one is swept away by a gusher of adulation that terminates, disappointingly, in the bulging gift-shop.

Any elucidation of the famous orb logo is missing, but every other totemic Westwood items is present, from the "Cowboys" shirt of 1975 to the blue platform shoes that sent Naomi Campbell tumbling in 1993. There are even clothes from the latest Westwood collection ("Exhibition"). All are showcased in a wide variety of displays - from shelves behind rubber strips to video screens and metal cages.

Curator Claire Wilcox has split the show into two sprawling sections. The first proceeds more or less chronologically, through the five famous London shops stocked by Westwood, segueing into her 1980s clothing. While this is framed and presented as social history, section two treats themes from the later work as couture. These are strands such as "knitwear", "evening wear" and "tartan" and they sometimes juxtapose different years and collections.

Part two tackles Westwood's reliance on art and costume history, introducing (rather belatedly) historic "source" pieces from the V&A's collection. Both sections demonstrate more than they articulate and their hagiographic text scrambles to keep up with the clothing. Early on, it also features one exceptional howler ­ a claim that Westwood and Malcolm McClaren, working together, "launched Punk" (sic). For three decades now, critics have argued over punk's nativity; to try and evade that debate (much less the facts behind it) does little credit to the show's integrity. The same applies to many other names and stories that are missing, particularly that of the Face magazine, primary engine of Westwood's post-punk visibility.

Punk as a street fashion movement reliably fascinates, especially because it functioned like conceptual art. Just as only a few people ever saw the Sex Pistols, only a minority ever viewed or wore punk-era Westwood. Her work gained its notoriety almost entirely through the media - and the many levels at which it was imitated. Even displayed statically, as here, the clothes retain their energy, which only gathers as they move towards "Pirates", her first collection (1981). The slapdash, Do-It-Yourself impact Westwood generated is typified by one of the V&A's first purchases, a purple jacket fashioned from dishcloths, sporting tin-can lids for buttons. Like punk music, which was able to spark fresh scenes in both 1980s Los Angeles and 1990s Seattle, Westwood's straps, rips and zippers still resonate.

But there is one unforgivable absence - the Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee. Without the oppositional symbols it provided, UK punk would have lacked almost all its potency. The Jubilee was punk's most visible and romantic opposite and, to understand why Westwood so fetishises "British" identity, nothing is more fundamental than their intersection. The designer's earliest work drew on concepts of the "kinky" and "naughty" that arose directly out of English upper-class repression. And ever since, whether making Crown Jewels from Harris tweed or ruminating on the shape of the Queen's childhood coats, Westwood has obsessively framed and deconstructed symbols of Englishness.

Her vision is indeed radical. But it is also curbed by a clear attraction to conventions, from the rules of tailoring to a Eurocentric view of history. Westwood's furtive love for the proper also explains her fixation with the French, from Rococo art to the theatre of the Revolution (another Royal, another oppositional drama). This Francophilia debuted in 1983 when simple shirts and shifts appeared in her collections, tagged with titles such as "Déshabillé".

These grew into a stream of allusions - to the sans-culottes, the courtiers of Versailles, the underdressed ladies of the Directoire. Westwood also paid regular homage to the tailleur of Dior and the varied achievements of the oldest maisons de couture. Hers may be an offbeat brand of worship, but it has produced some strikingly original pieces. In 1984, for example, Westwood remade the repro flying jacket loved by London nightclubbers. It became a topcoat with faux-Empire lines, a high waist and Incroyable flair balanced by clawhammer tails.

Westwood responds strongly to the French character's love of order, its formalist elegance and bourgeois conservatism. But this attraction has to co-exist with her eccentricities. This exhibition made über-critic Suzy Menkes speculate what a Westwood reign at Dior might have produced. But (as Menkes also noted) the work is at odds with true haute couture. Westwood creations too reflexively flaunt their improvisation, rough edges and lack of finish.

"Vivienne Westwood" opens with a photo of our heroine enthroned in a vinyl chair, surrounded by fluffy mohair and Teddy Boy artifacts. This shot, in which Westwood holds her bleached head high, conveys the ambiance of a distant era. But it is not the mythic 1950s as much as the character of Westwood's personal history. Born in the shadow of World War II, schooled in the North of England, an art college dropout who would teach and raise children - here is a woman for whom transgressive glamour means Diana Dors and Ruth Ellis as much as the Situationists.

No surprise, then, that the Establishment repulses as well as seduces her or that the world Westwood forges for herself remains so singular. After all, she unites the homeliest aspects of Britain (Smedley smalls and twin sets) with the country's grandest fantasy life (pirates in bondage, kilted lairds, powdered and powerful ladies). Westwood, rarely her own best analyst, does speak shrewdly about English culture when she notes, "Where the glamour is in clothes, the romance, it is, I believe, in something that people have seen before. It's like a perfume. You think, 'I know that smell'."

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