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Books: Treasure this material girl to treasure

Chris Savage King praises the only designer who can make Harris Tweed sexy
Vivienne Westwood: an unfashionable life

by Jane Mulvagh

HarperCollins, pounds 19.99, 402pp

IF INVENTING clothes ranks with the fine arts, then Vivienne Westwood is a most accomplished practitioner. Her shops are Aladdin's Caves full of objects to astonish and delight. As in Fragonard paintings, the thrill of the garments lies in the manner of their execution. Westwood's clothes are colourful and effusive, full of themselves. Their watchword might be: "Don't dream it - be it!"

Westwood's background was spartan, in wealth and expectations. On a teacher training course, she was set to be "potentially the greatest primary school teacher of her generation". A Jean Brodie-ish spell hangs over her oeuvre and personality, but in earlier days, she was searching for appropriate creative soil.

Famously, she met Malcolm McLaren. The significance of punk has been a hard-worked theme by cultural historians. This is probably because its raw energy stands in bold contrast to the lankness of much new culture now. What might be claimed about this short, brutal movement is that it created shockwaves that anticipated the best and worst of the 1980s. What is often forgotten in the lather of nostalgia is that punk was rabidly puritanical.

The Westwood/McLaren alliance was unmarked by physical affection, and for that matter, too much acknowledgement of her contribution. One of Westwood's favourite quotes is from H L Mencken: "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy". Once punk and McLaren were done, Westwood's work emphasised femininity and extravagance. After punk, she came into her own.

The chief interest in her work lies in its fearless juxtapositions of high and low art, restraint of form and excessive content. Westwood alone could give Harris Tweed - the frumpiest of fabrics - a feeling of style and sexiness. She could transform conservative costumes with radical cuts. Her work is the sum of deep contradictions. Spontaneous-seeming clothes are fiercely tailored; wild celebrations of the female form both embrace and restrict it. Original clothing draws explicitly on history, and so transforms past and current trends.

Her guiding light has been to assume that if it's beautiful, it works; but she has consistently challenged conventional notions of what beauty is. Her works could be said to be the embodiment of art for art's sake but, bustling as they are with ideas, they manage to be thought-provoking as well.

Westwood is also a flagrant elitist who happens to be a household name. As a woman in the public eye, she has suffered her fair share of scorn and ridicule. Women artists and intellectuals are especially prone to this, especially if they have crashed through professional barriers, ignoring the rules.

It is arguable whether Jane Mulvagh's book challenges or adds to this crude lampooning trend. Westwood changed her mind about involvement with it, and so it relies on other sources. Malcolm McLaren's ill-natured remarks on Westwood amount to virtual character assassination. The reader can only blink as assertions of his importance continue as Westwood's star rises and his fades.

While Mulvagh is keen to support her subject, she is also prone to taking catty potshots on the topics of Westwood's love life, difficult personal traits and intellectual interests (or "pretensions"). While congratulating her on a tenacious lack of orthodoxy, Mulvagh can come up with some incredibly pedestrian pronouncements herself.

Westwood's autobiography still cries out to be written. You imagine something along the lines of Andy Warhol's A-Z And Back Again, from a woman's point of view. But, for the time being, Jane Mulvagh's version of Westwood's life is a sporadically interesting account of a remarkable woman.