Triumph of the squiggle

This coming week marks 30 years since Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s “pirate” collection stormed the runway in London with a blaze of sunshine colours and ethnic prints. The show was Westwood’s first swagger on to the catwalk, forging a sophisticated post-punk aesthetic with a billowing new romantic silhouette. It was also the debut of the Squiggle, the print that would become as perennially “Westwood” as her orb logo – and even more globally resonant.

Today this looping, jagged-edged pattern still appears on the pirate shirts that continue to sell at Westwood’s World’s End store at 430 Kings Road. But now it’s also on bags, boots, notebooks, Lee jeans, sofas, wallpaper, rugs and carpets. When Molteni & C Dada, the cool, upmarket Italian interiors company, opened a flagship store in London in 2008, it was with a window full of “squiggle”-patterned furniture. As Christopher Sharp, co-founder of the Rug Company, which produces squiggle rugs, says: “As a graphic, it translates brilliantly and effortlessly; it’s iconic, and it sits triumphantly in spaces from classical to contemporary.”

The longevity of the squiggle, and its movement from its counterculture beginnings to the upper echelons of luxury, mirrors the ascendancy of Westwood (who turns 70 next month) from Chelsea anarchist to British national treasure. According to Murray Blewett, Red Label designer, the print “developed from trying to symbolise rope”. There are few prints in fashion that are so inextricably linked to one single label.

Its journey to Westwood and McLaren’s World’s End shop actually started in Paris in the hands of another designer. Paul Gorman, author of the rock and pop fashion book and blog The Look, interviewed McLaren many times between the mid-1970s and his death last year, and recalls that the squiggle began life “as an African print on a scarf given to him [McLaren] by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac while they were living together in the French capital”.

The late 1970s were a critical phase in the evolution of Westwood’s career. When the Sex Pistols, whom McLaren had managed, broke up in 1978, his and Westwood’s Seditionaries boutique at 430 Kings Road stayed open only periodically as McLaren roamed from London to LA to Paris. In 1979 it was boarded up, pulling the curtain down on the pair’s involvement with punk. While the shop was being refitted for its 1980 World’s End incarnation, Westwood remained in London honing her technical skills and studying 18th-century costume, while the magpie-like McLaren continued to look abroad to bring new elements to her cutting-room table.

“He brought ethnicity and exoticism to the pirate collection; sun, sea, sex and sand,” says Gorman. It was a swashbuckling reboot of the confrontational, cliquey street fashion they’d invented in the mid-1970s. “Just as the punk had picked up rubbish out of the gutter, pinned it on his jacket, collected safety pins and tore his clothes,” says Westwood, “Malcolm and I decided to go romantic and plunder the world.” The stage was set for the seminal pirate collection.

Michael Costiff, who runs the label World Archive, was in the audience at the Pirate show at the Olympia exhibition centre in 1981. “It was such a grey time in London, ” he says, “and the show had so much colour, with the orange squiggle prints, gold lipstick and multi-racial models appearing through the smoke to a Burundi soundtrack. It was all so unexpected after punk. We couldn’t wait to go shopping.”

The late Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery told iD magazine in 1987 that: “I’d seen those clothes in magazines but it was shocking to see them actually on sale.” As Sonnet Stanfill, curator of 20th-century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, points out: “As distinctive as the print was, you could only buy the pirate collection at World’s End, so when one travelled outside of London wearing it, it was like belonging to a sort of club.”

Today the pirate shirt still conveys an avant-garde sensibility and the squiggle reappears time and time again in Westwood’s Anglomania collections. But squiggle’s boldest transition into the mainstream occurred with the launch of a range of Westwood-print wallpapers by Cole & Son in 2009. Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband and design partner, says, “You can connect squiggle with new romanticism and pirate, but it’s also just a very attractive and simple print.”

Indeed, says Michael Costiff: “I bumped into Andreas recently and told him how amused I was to have just seen the squiggle print on rolls of wallpaper in the window of Peter Jones on the Kings Road. It’s taken 30 years, but it has gone from World’s End to Sloane Square.”

Westwood show: From outsider to subversive insider

The squiggle is not the only Vivienne Westwood invention to have gone global, as a new exhibition makes clear. Vivienne Westwood: 1980-89 at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) (until April 2) focuses on her transformation from street provocateur to international phenomenon, writes Jim Shi.

“She’s a progenitor of a real style we identify as contemporary English fashion,” says Valerie Steele, FIT’s chief curator and director, pointing out the show is not a retrospective of Westwood’s career (the Victoria and Albert Museum did that in 2004), but rather about “drilling down to see what she was doing in the 1980s – because she was so important for the extreme shapes she brought”.

That decade was when Westwood entered the fashion establishment. “She came from this anti-fashion stance to then wanting to become a fashion designer but still bring that subversive edge with her,” says Steele.

Curated in collaboration with students from FIT’s Master of Arts programme in fashion and textile studies, the show features some 40 objects that helped define the Westwood aesthetic in the 1980s, from the “pirate” collection (with models clad in oversized puffy shirts, sporting baggy flat-heel boots and henna ringlets), to the “rocking horse” boots from autumn 1986 and the celebrated bra top and skirt from autumn 1982.

As the exhibition shows, this was the pivotal decade in Westwood’s career, one that saw her move from the cover of The Face magazine to the front of British Vogue, from fashion outsider to fashion insider. And similarly, the exhibition itself pivots on a crucial Westwood change in silhouette: the invention of the “mini-crini,” which, in Westwood’s first solo collection following the 1984 departure of Malcolm McLaren, turned the 19th-century cage crinoline hoop skirt into a flirty mini-skirt.

The mini-crini made its debut around the same time as MTV, which changed the landscape of fashion on television, increasing Westwood’s international exposure and enabling her to reach a new generation of savvy street-style followers.


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