How Vivienne Westwood’s legacy of activism inspired the LGBTQ+ community

Collage of photos of Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood, the grand dame of punk fashion, has died aged 81.

Westwood died in her home in Clapham, south London, surrounded by family, on 29 December. She will be remembered for her iconoclast designs, and her tireless activism against climate change and capitalism.

“A true icon of British fashion and an irreplaceable force in the industry. Her legacy will live on,” said British Vogue editor Edward Enninful.

“You did it first,” said designer Marc Jacobs. “Always. Incredible style with brilliant and meaningful substance. I continue to learn from your words, and, all of your extraordinary creations.”

Drag Race UK winner The Vivienne, who named herself for the designer, said: “Vivienne Westwood is the woman that showed me I could do anything, I could wear what I wanted, she was an ICON and I lived my life through hers in some sorts of way. There will never be another, but we’ll continue your fight.”

Vivienne Westwood walking a runway holding flowers
Vivienne Westwood walks the runway at London Fashion Week Men’s 2017. (Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage)

Westwood made her name in the ’70s with a boutique on Kings Road in Chelsea, which she co-owed with then-partner Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols. The store became synonymous with punk style and became one of the most talk-about spots in London; she wrote in her biography: “There was no punk before me and Malcolm.”

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It changed names multiple times, in sync with its collections, but was most famous as Sex – its wares at the time taking inspiration from bondage and fetish.

Black and white photo of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. (Daily Mirror / Bill Kennedy/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty)

Westwood’s career exploded after her first runway show in 1981 – her “Pirate” collection, which continues to influence fashion – and while hers became a household name, she continued to position herself as an outsider.

Her anti-establishment ethos meant she became a hero to many in the LGBTQ+ community. She used queer models for her collections – a 2016 brand campaign featured gay porn star Colby Keller in various states of undress, and in 2018 she cast Drag Race’s Milk for a campaign celebrating New York’s club kids.

LGBTQ+ author and journalist Paul Burston remembered escorting Westwood to a Stonewall event from which he’d been barred. She insisted Burston, who was then LGBT editor at Time Out and contributing editor at Attitude, had a right to enter.

“She also insulted guest of honour Edwina Currie – who they were schmoozing despite her appalling comments as health minister about people with AIDS,” Burston tweeted after her death.

“‘I don’t know who you are,’ Vivienne told her. ‘And I’m too drunk to care.'”

Vivienne Westwood was outspoken on politics, was against capitalism, for equality, and horrified by the climate crisis. In 1989, she appeared on the cover of Tatler, dressed as Margaret Thatcher (in fact, she wore a suit Thatcher had ordered from Aquascutum, but had not yet collected). The headline read: “This woman was once a punk.”

In 1992, she was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive an OBE. Upon leaving, she twirled for the cameras, her skirt purposefully lifting to reveal a pair of sheer tights, and nothing underneath. This didn’t seem to offend the palace too much – she was invited back in 2006 and made a dame.

In 2015, she drove a tank to then-prime minister David Cameron’s constituency home to carry out a fake “chemical attack” to highlight the dangers of the fracking.

“Cameron accuses foreign leaders such as President Gaddafi and President Assad of supposedly using chemicals on their own people as a justification for regime change, she said at the time.

“But he is doing precisely that here in Britain by forcing toxic, life-threatening fracking chemicals on his own people against the advice of his own chief scientist.”

In later years, she campaigned fervently for Julian Assange’s freedom. In 2020, she locked herself into a giant bird cage to protest his detainment. “I am the canary in the cage. If I die down the coal mine from poisonous gas, that’s the signal,” she said.

Vivienne Westwood in a yellow suit, behind bars
Vivienne Westwood suspended 10 feet high inside a giant bird cage in protest for Julian Assange at the Old Bailey. (Getty)

Shortly before she passed, Westwood declared: Julian Assange is a hero and has been treat atrociously by the UK government.”

A continued released after her death continued: “Capitalism is a crime. it is the root cause of war, climate change and corruption.

“Stop climate change This is a war for the very existence of the human race. And that of the planet The most important weapon we have is public opinion. Become a freedom fighter.”

The Vivienne Foundation, founded by the designer in 2022, will continue her legacy of design and activism.

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