Field Report: Vivienne Westwood, 1980-89

In April I visited an exhibition at The Museum at F.I.T. – a retrospective on Vivienne Westwood’s work throughout the 1980s. The exhibition traced her start with then partner Malcolm McLaren to her later solo endeavors. While Westwood’s name is now synonymous with high fashion and while most are familiar with her background in the London punk scene in of the 1970s and 1980s, I thought it would be interesting to consider her designs as art within the context of this course.

Westwood’s early work was reactionary to a dominant culture.  Not only did rips, safety pins and antiestablishment graphics characterize her clothing, but she also provided the London punk subculture with guidelines on how to dress through the clothing she sold at her boutique, Let it Rock. She drew inspiration from a multitude of different sources.  Eighteenth-century men’s undergarments inspired one of her earlier collections, Pirates. She famously pioneered the trend of wearing underwear as outerwear for both men and women and designed unisex collections. Blurring gender norms and social conventions by revisiting mythologies of pirates, Westwood re-territorializes both high and low culture into a new medium of expression.

As a form that Nicholas Bourriaud might deem more participatory than visual arts or cinema (even though both require an active and prolonged engagement with the material at hand), fashion is wearable art. This requires more of a physical, interactive engagement with the material than simply observing. I perceive this process as multi-tiered.  While a piece of clothing is conceived and created by the designer, it takes on a new life, historical and cultural context when worn by the consumer. The consumer, connecting in one sense or another to an article of clothing (what I would consider, for the most part, as an individual’s affective response) buys and wears the piece. This piece now no longer stands alone.  It takes on new life and meaning as it fuses with the related visual symbols of its proprietor (shoes, accessories, hygiene, etc.) and the individual’s personal politics and demeanor. All these factors contribute to the various ways the same piece can be perceived differently in the context of social interaction. An article of clothing will then rarely appear in the same way more than once.

What I find interesting about fashion is how the corporeal becomes inherent in the work itself; the body becomes a literal component of the artwork.  Moreover, it’s interesting to examine how the energy we project influence the ways others perceive fashion on our bodies.  Through clothing we are constantly de-territorializing and re-territorializing these works of art and the artist’s intention (lest that be the artist’s intention).  The active participation necessary in consuming fashion echoes similar ideas to those Bourriaud put forth in his study of how art is produced and consumed within the movement of relational aesthetics.

The piece I felt the strongest connection to in the exhibit was her Rocking Horse Boot. The design of the boot is such that it causes the individual wearing it to rock back and forth while walking. These boots both add and remove certain physical limitations, challenging the natural movement of the body. They disrupt of the mechanics of human movement creating new affections. The form of these boots influences the mobility and spatial capacity of the individual wearing them, opening up the potential for new interactions.

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that Westwood was selling anti-establishment clothing from her boutique. This conflation of art as commodity is one Claire Bishop also problematizes and refers to Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses to qualify how relational aesthetics still function nicely within a larger capitalist framework and can still perpetuate the commodification of art. The same can be said for Westwood’s work. Although her early work was political, it was commodity nonetheless. The lack of self-awareness Bishop accuses of Bourriaud is, to a certain extent, applicable to Westwood. Of course, the argument can be made that there is indeed no escaping this structure so it is a matter of what can be done within its limits, but this is an interesting point Bishop draws attention to nonetheless.

While I agree with Bishop that Bourriaud’s arguments for relational aesthetics are inherently flawed, I enjoy the emphasis he places on interactivity and the benefit of disassembling the gallery space. He draws attention to the ways art is produced and consumed and how a reformation of this structure can enable a new sphere of thought processes. Fashion can be a part of both an individual and collective process of ontology. That a work of art is then re-appropriated by the consumer, and consequently creates a ripple of perceptions and affections for those who encounter it (perhaps inspiring them) is fascinating. This show, although set in the conventional, enclosed and regulated environment of the gallery led me to consider the power of fashion as art, as part of a process becoming, in a way I hadn’t.

– Aïcha

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