Unlikely Classics Vivienne Westwood and the Sex Pistols

Separating the timeless from the disposable



It’s old news that we live in a disposable age. McDonalds got there first with food, and now the prefix “Mc-” is routinely applied to everything that’s quick, cheap and not exactly top-of-the-range – a description I’m often tempted to apply to some of my dearest friends. Personal issues apart though, just think about it: food is fast, news is fast, we’ve never seen the global economy change as rapidly as it’s done in the past 12 months, and even relationships – so teenagers tell me – are, if not quite fast, then often not exactly slow and sustainable nowadays either.

Is all this necessarily bad? I don’t think so. In the oft-stolen words of my favourite Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus: “The only constant is change.” Alternatively, in the words of “Barbie Girl”, my favourite, eminently disposable chewing gum pop song of the Nineties: “Life is plastic, it’s fantastic …” And yet if everything is disposable, what shall we have as our cultural North Star, to orientate us amid the flotsam and jetsam of our twenty-first century lives. Is nothing sacred? Is the very concept of objects or images being “classic” a thing of the past?

As you ponder that question you’re no doubt doing exactly what I did: you’re reaching for the Oxford English Dictionary … or perhaps even for your Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm, that magnificent dictionary started by the Grimm Brothers of fairytale fame in 1852, to search for a German equivalent. There, in the OED at least, you’ll find the word “classic” defined as follows: “Of acknowledged excellence; outstandingly important, remarkably typical …” In other words, something that’s classic is a pillar of quality in a world gone mad.

I suppose it’s a word which in 2009 is most often used to describe cars, (think Inspector Morse’s beautiful red Jaguar XJ6), fashion (think Coco Chanel’s iconic tweed jackets) and perhaps art, to the extent that Johann Hermann Carmiencke, for example, can be described as a classic German landscape painter of the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand, history undoubtedly changes our perspective. Staying with cars for a moment: take the Trabant, which featured prominently in Time magazine’s 50 Worst Cars of All Time, and which, even if Uncle Joe Stalin had really been a nice old man, would still single-handedly have given Communism a bad name. East Germans couldn’t wait to see the back of it as they poured across the border in 1989 – but today it’s … a classic.

And of course Vivienne Westwood – doesn’t she have a hideaway on Mallorca? – the High Priestess of British fashion, is another perfect example of what in future I’ll call “Trabby Syndrome”.

Sixty-nine years old next month, Westwood originally got noticed as a result of her association with The Sex Pistols and particularly with their notorious manager, Malcolm McLaren. Her “big idea” was to dress the Pistols in a manner which would reflect the socially contrarian nature of their lyrics – hence the safety pins and razor blades – and so the fashion known as punk was born. Believe it or not, Westwood was a teacher at the time. She said in an interview with CNN a few weeks ago that she was far more interested in literature than in fashion, and that her eyes still glazed over whenever anyone forced her to talk at length about her designs. That was the whole problem with fashion, she observed wistfully, it went on and on …

Anyway, she famously opened her first shop – called the Sex Boutique – at 430 King’s Road, Chelsea, in 1971. In fact, she still owns the shop and runs her Anglomania label from there. Her outrageous designs sold like hotcakes. Along with Johnny Rotten and the band, she was derided and excoriated by the British establishment – to the point where her immortality was assured. In 1992, Westwood was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire “for services to fashion”, after three times winning the British Designer of the Year award. In 2004 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London hosted the first major retrospective of her work. And she has received several honorary degrees, including at least one honorary Doctorate of Letters.

She’s always been politically active, and recently accepted an invitation to become a trustee of the UK civil rights organisation, Liberty, for whom she designed T-shirts and baby wear bearing the slogan, “I AM NOT A TERRORIST – PLEASE DON’T ARREST ME”. So time may have designated her designs classic – but she’s still as outspoken as ever.

There you go. When they were in their heyday, could anyone have anticipated that the Trabby, or Vivienne Westwood, or The Sex Pistols for that matter, would one day not alone be respectable but would be regarded as icons of their age … whose inimitable spirit captured the zeitgeist? I think we all know the answer to that one …

Perhaps the moral of the story is that although they may have been troublesome, unreliable, awkward, noisy and sometimes even downright anarchic, all three had a certain never-to-be-repeated uniqueness which made them special … the feeling that when God created the Trabby, he broke the mould for sure.

It’s that very uniqueness which makes them classic and timeless – the diametric opposite of bland, anaemic and disposable. So let’s play a new game for 2009: let’s start trying to identify as many cases as possible of Trabby Syndrome – non-conformist people or things everyone loves to hate or disapprove of at the moment, but which time may well rehabilitate over the next quarter-century or so as classics.

The problem is that as things stand, I can’t think of anything or anyone at all – and that really is a worry!