Art: Vivienne Westwood

    But it was the interviews Westwood did in between this madcap carnivaling that really convinced me of her worth. She talked such exquisite sense about the nature of tailoring. She shone with such passion for her field, knew so much and held most of her peers in such excellently low regard. What I admired most about her, what I have never encountered anywhere else in her terrible domain, was — to use an expression as papal as Westwood’s famous cross-and-orb logo — the spotlessness of her soul. She struck me as being entirely uncorrupt. Here she was, plying her trade in the most degenerate and unnecessary of the minor arts, yet everything she did, everything she said, had a nobility of purpose to it. Thus I learnt to draw a distinction between the fashion industry in general and Westwood in particular.

    A fabulous Westwood retrospective at the V&A makes clear that this distinction was there from the start — and that it still holds. Laid out before us, with so many sartorial highlights and with ever- increasing amounts of ambition, is an array of clothes that can honestly claim to have altered the fabric of the nation. Plenty of fashion designers believe themselves to be rebellious. Some may even imagine they have changed the world. While they are merely deluding themselves, Vivienne Westwood actually did some of that — and she did it, I suggest, because her clothes are unusually proactive. They never just lie there.

    Or hang there. Westwood’s clothes buttonhole you. Even when draped around a mannequin, they seem determined to have their say.

    The opening display is devoted to her punk years, and despite three decades of smoothing down and making safe, this punk output continues to feel genuinely spiky and aggressive. The God Save the Queen T-shirt worn by Johnny Rotten is merely the most celebrated of a selection of items that still feel transgressive. Sleeves torn off.

    Genitals zippered up. Arms bound. Straps, studs, spikes, safety pins. Punk clothing had, and has, an utterly tangible psychological darkness to it. It speaks of self-mutilation and anger. It parades its violence. It cuts itself and swears at you. And, whether you favour it or not, it patently amounts to more than a look.

    From the start, Westwood could do mind-sets. A few snippets of biography appended to the opening of the show tell of a working-class war child from Glossop in Derbyshire, born in 1941, whose mother was a cotton weaver and whose father’s family were shoe-makers. These beginnings strike me as instructive. Clothes were in her blood. So, also, were the hatreds and yearnings of a class warrior. Westwood’s later fondness for hunting-gear chic, her current obsession with ball gowns and royalty, can surely trace their origins to a childhood spent peering over the wall at how the toffs lived. During the punk years, these Cinderella desires of hers were well and truly suppressed. The story of this show is the story of their slow yet relentless emergence.

    We start with Westwood spelling out the word “rock” in real chicken bones attached to a black T-shirt. It’s the early 1970s, and she has paired up with a cultural troublemaker of genius named Malcolm McLaren. The two of them have opened a shop called Let It Rock, on the King’s Road, and filled it with cheaply altered biker gear and multibuckled fetish wear. Let It Rock changes its name to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. Then to Sex. Then to Seditionaries. And somewhere within these mutations, punk is born.

    But the basic ingredients were always there: lots of black, tons of immaturity, plenty of sexual naughtiness and an utterly Westwoodian confusion between fashion and voodoo. Those chicken bones remain irredeemably spooky to this day.

    Did you know that it was actually Charles Dickens who invented punk? Me neither. But the most extraordinary of the early King’s Road exhibits is a text by McLaren from the first days of punk, painted onto a silk hanging, in which he unveils a peculiar fantasy about gangs of ragamuffins running around London, taunting the rich and nicking their stuff. It was inspired, he says, by Oliver Twist. Thus, punk was a literary movement really, an attempt to make this wacky Dickensian fantasy come alive.

    Separating McLaren’s ideas from Westwood’s is imposs-ible at the start. There seems to be more of him in there than there is of her. All the early designs that involve wrapping people in layers and tatters, bandaging them in satin for the pirate look, hanging them with oatmeal scarving for the Peruvian-savage cut, all these cluttered and baggy displays of fashion by accretion, are variations on McLaren’s basic ragamuffin outline.

    The exhibition is divided in two, with a first room that looks back to punk and the King’s Road years, and a second dominated by the altogether plusher Westwood of today. Thus, the second of the show’s main story lines traces Westwood’s accelerating independence from McLaren. The lights are dimmed, the backdrops are blackened, the punk-rock soundtrack is replaced by a classical one. And you feel as if you have stepped off the high street and into a palace.

    With a lovely touch, the show confronts a François Boucher painting of Madame de Pompadour wearing miles of gorgeous brown silk with Westwood’s version of the same dress, cut to tighten across the stomach and thus to become sluttishly sexy where Boucher’s dress is merely extravagant. It’s a typical Westwood improvement. For the rest of the show, she treats the past as a pattern book and remains utterly fearless in her quotation. The playful art of the 18th century becomes her principal influence and triggers a decade of outstanding fertility as she skips from painting to painting, unpicking the rococo.

    And look how brave she remains. How foolhardy, even. The spectacle of Vivienne Westwood attempting to start a craze for bum pads that made the wearer’s arse look huge, is, frankly, hilarious. The cuts and cloths of the toffs have fallen into the hands of a fearless Derbyshire subversive who is out to storm the palace. And while the first part of this fascinating show contains plenty of crucial social history, it is among these outrageous accumulations of satins and lace, the diamanté studding and the emerald expanses of silk faille, that the wildest sartorial pleasures are on offer.