Vivienne Westwood by Claire Wilcox

All that blubber dressed in rubber
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Books to accompany exhibitions of a living fashion designer are the new vanity publishing: the curator's text promotes the star, quoting him or her reverently, and promoting the museum/ gallery as important to have this talent on display. The accompanying essay and credits seldom detain me for long when deciding whether to lay out 30 quid for a book on someone like Vivienne Westwood, because I really lust after certain photos: say, the one on page 152 where the camera gets up close and impersonal on a crafty conjunction of knit and print. Or the knock-out portraits of the original Jordan, the shop assistant at SEX who got more fetishistic accoutrements on customers' backs than her guv'nors put together, and stared boldly into the lens clad as much in her own blubber as in their rubber. I'd have blown the cash just for the study of the Dangerous Liaisons jacket, a nifty pastiche of 18th century tailoring in red-hot barathea, if a copy of the book hadn't been sent round for review.

So I felt obliged to read its minimal wordage carefully, from the foreword by Her Royal Vivship (which proves that she handles prose less masterfully than barathea) to the glossary, which defines, with perfect circularity, a circle skirt as "cut from one circular piece of fabric". Miles Chapman wrote the shrewd captions, and his unimpressible sensibility - "Vivienne's goldfoil teeth are pirated from a pack of Benson & Hedges", he annotated a mugshot of Westwood taken in 1980, when the punk depository Seditionaries muted into the New Romantic HQ called World's End - comes as a kick after curator Claire Wilcox's introduction. This competently covers la Viv's personal and professional history, from her 1947 sighting of Dior's New Look - falling long and wide from the shoulders of a woman from Tintwistle walking through Viv's native Glossop, Derbyshire - to her company's present licensing deals. Some of its VW quotes fascinate when they deal with technicalities: her discovery that cut and fit depend on the fashionable perception of male sexual attractiveness, or her description of a discreet girl on the underground (the Tube, darling, not the extreme scene) whose tweed jacket and ballerina bun inspire her still. But many passages of Westwoodian waffle and utterances from her male muses, especially ectoplasmic stuff from the collection manifestos ("Take your mother's old brassière and wear it undisguised over your school jumper and have a muddy face") simply exasperate.

Because Wilcox seems hobbled by the genre from analysing such fashiony pronouncements, she lacks the distance essential to critical appraisal. Wilcox puts that bra dictum in the context of what others were creating in 1982-83 and brackets her summary with statements from fellow curators at prestigious museums; but she doesn't express any fresh ideas as to what punk and post-punk meant in the narrative of 20th-century style. (Perhaps it's too early to say.) Westwood's claim that punk was "a great stand against authority - rebellion, autonomy, swastikas" precedes by one paragraph her remark that "If there is such a thing as the Anti-Establishment it feeds the Establishment", without question or comment from Wilcox. What about VW's crown logo? Does that come from her Glossop comprehension of dosh? Shouldn't there have been a reference to the V&A holdings of Regency gents' gear, to set Viv's dandyism within the tradition of nobs borrowing from working-class clobber while the lower orders pull themselves upwards by the flashness of their bootstraps? And the Miss Marple tweed suits - what was Viv a-doing? No answers. Never mind. A photocopy of that shot of the Dangerous Liaisons jacket has gone up on the wall until I can afford the real thing.