The 18th-Century Inspiration of Vivienne Westwood’s Collections Revisited


Vivienne Westwood has often riffed on period clothing and costumes, from the pirate shirt to the corset and crinoline, subverting them to create designs firmly anchored in her time and place, yet full of historical and cultural references. This ongoing dialogue with the past started with her very first catwalk collection in 1981, which she researched at the National Art Library in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Patterns for 18th-century men's clothing such as billowing shirts formed the basis of her Pirate Collection and helped launch the New Romantic trend. She followed with a study of historical shapes, using corset, bustle and crinoline, adapting the later for example to create the Mini-Crini, a short skirt with plastic boning.

Vivienne Westwood, Dress (detail),  Photographed at Danson House, Kent by Daniel Luke 

Vivienne Westwood, Dress (detail),  Photographed at Danson House, Kent by Daniel Luke 

While covering various historical periods, she particularly favored the 18th century and its Rococo style. Her Portrait Collection of Autumn/Winter 1991, was directly inspired by the Wallace Collection of eighteenth century French paintings and decorative arts where she appropriated the corset shape found in François Boucher’s shepherdesses’ dress while referencing his Daphnis and Chloe (Shepherd watching a sleeping shepherdess (1743‑1745)). The works of Jean Antoine Watteau (1684‑1721) also inspired several collections, such as the Voyage to Cythera Autumn/Winter 1990 collection, and culminated in her deconstructing the period’s sack-back dresses and petticoats in her Spring/Summer 1996 with a sumptuous green silk and taffeta three-piece 'Watteau' evening gown, with an asymmetrical single off-shoulder style and bow-bedecked corset.

The impact of 18th-century art and design on her work is the subject of a small exhibition, ‘Cut from the Past,’ opening April 1 at Danson House, a restored Georgian villa at Bexleyheath, Southeast London, whose richly decorated interior is the perfect setting for the 10 pieces on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum and private collections.

“We want visitors to enjoy the experience of looking at couture based on 18th-century patterns in the context of an 18th-century house. As Westwood herself says, “The 18th century is the high point of art and culture.” It is also an opportunity for visitors to view previously unseen pieces from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection,” explains curator Caroline Worthington.

Arranged through several rooms in the historic house, the exhibition will first introduce Westwood’s work in a mini chronological survey. The next room will explore Westwood’s use of 16th-century patterns on her clothes, while another will feature items from her 1991 Portrait Collection, and another will showcase the famous “Watteau” dress worn by Linda Evangelista on the catwalk. A final room showcase a dress covered in a pattern taken from an 18th-century clock by the famous French cabinet maker André-Charles Boulle (1642 –1732).

For Worthington, the star of the show is undoubtedly the “Watteau” dress with its “Le sac” design and two-meter train that was last seen on display in 2004. “Historically accurate, it is also an exciting contemporary dress — figure hugging, strapless on the left, and with large bows across the bodice,” she says.

The exhibition will run 1 April‑31 October, 2015

First published on BLOUINARTINFO.COm