Joan Jett and Vivienne Westwood: the new films about the original ladies of punk

Punk is back in fashion and two of the movement's pioneers, Dame Vivienne Westwood and Joan Jett, are being celebrated in new documentaries

British designer Vivienne Westwood acknowledges the public at the end of Spring/Summer 2008 ready-to-wear collection show in Paris, 01 October 2007. AFP PHOTO PIERRE VERDY (Photo credit should read PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so far away, boys and girls embraced a new way of dressing and listening to music that would become known to the entire world as the punk movement. These young streetwise Londoners of the early 1970s proudly wore their flamboyant clothes of discontent and listened to songs that sounded discordant at the time – and yet, the music and fashion that grew out of that era has been an inspiration for artists and designers ever since.

Jon Savage, in a comprehensive history of the Sex Pistols and punk music titled England's Dreaming, describes the movement as a "bricolage" of youth culture in the western world between the Second World War and the 1970s, all "stuck together with safety pins".

But punk as a movement was about so much more than just appearances – the iconic black leather, spikes, mohawks, irreverent printed T-shirts and, of course, said safety pins. It was a movement of progressive ­nonconformists with anarchic views. And it is no accident that it was born during a time that reminds us eerily of the present day.

At the current DocLisboa, a yearly film festival taking place in the beautiful Portuguese coastal city of Lisbon, which focuses on documentaries, there are a couple of films screening in the event's Heartbeat segment that focus on two icons of the punk movement – English fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and American rock star Joan Jett.

Kevin Kerslake's Bad Reputation is an intimate rockumentary about Jett, which presents a legendary woman growing older on stage in front of her audience, while Lorna Tucker's Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is a personal, up-close cinematic portrait of the designer that eventually cost the filmmaker her friendship with her childhood fashion idol.

A still from Kevin Kerslake’s Bad Reputation
A still from Kevin Kerslake’s Bad Reputation

As it turns out, there could be no better time than the present to revisit these legends of punk. Because just as in the late 1960s, early 1970s in the United Kingdom and the early 1980s in the United States – when Westwood and Jett kicked off their careers – punk is once again the ­global style trend of discontent. ­People ­worldwide are unhappy – about everything from Brexit to right-wing politics, and punk is once again turning into the visual ­language of their grievances.

This newer sartorial version was visible in John Galliano's latest prairie punk collection, in the ­irreverent Sex Pistols-inspired prints and layered leather-under-graphic-T-shirts combinations at Burberry, the Miu Miu Spring 2019 show, Gareth Pugh, and even at Balenciaga, where creative director Demna Gvasalia showed a more 1980s-socialite kind of punk.

John Galiano serves up some prairie punk. Courtesy John Galliano
John Galiano serves up some prairie punk. Courtesy John Galliano

When I ask Joana Sousa, programmer of Heartbeat at DocLisboa, why she included these figures in her section, she points out that "punk is of course a movement and way of life that we find crucial in our contemporary history, and with which we identify ourselves quite a lot".

Cintia Gil, the director of the event, adds that when the punk movement started, "it was a reaction to tradition, but also to a very tight atmosphere where no one really felt free. Today, the circumstances are not the same, but the deep problems are not so different: our societies are totally submitted to a financial technocracy; stock markets are our new gods."

Gil deduces: “Even if apparently some societies are more open, it’s true that normalisation of behaviours, of bodies, of languages and emotions continues to be the core of global politics – so defiance is still and forever necessary.”

Westwood is credited with introducing a punk edge to British fashion that still exists to this day
Westwood is credited with introducing a punk edge to British fashion that still exists to this day

It also was no accident that ­DocLisboa chose punk heroines, not heroes – each important in her own way – but also not so young any more. "Good and powerful female icons are never enough, and we love them," explains Sousa. She adds that in both films "it's very clear the issue of growing old and how older women are not 'supposed' to be creators; they simply become transparent… this is ­something they both [Westwood and Jett] fight against – the nothingness that society reserved for them as older women".

I ask Tucker, director of Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, why we are returning to this movement now. "­Because we are going through the same political upheaval that was going on in the 1970s," she explains. "Punk as a genre doesn't look for approval from the establishment."

Simple enough. Similar times call for comparable measures – and fashion trends, of course. Westwood was the embodiment of this attitude at the start of the punk movement in England and, as Tucker points out, "she's still that ­person, but older and wiser". Even today, the strongest salutes to the movement come from UK ­fashion houses such as Asai, Burberry and Gareth Pugh. So, does Tucker, a ­former model, believe that punk styling comes ­naturally to the Brits? "No, I think we have punk thinkers, a history of ­thinkers stirring it up with writing and music, but Westwood created a punk attitude to British style, and we see the echo constantly running through fashion today."

And, she adds, almost tongue-in-cheek: “We’re a nation of pirates and her designs, quite literally at one point, have that feel to them.”

Punk inspired fashion on the Burberry catwalk. Courtesy Burberry
Punk inspired fashion on the Burberry catwalk. Courtesy Burberry

Westwood revolutionised fashion with her presence, even at a time when "the industry wasn't quite ready for it… she was even laughed at on TV for her designs", as Tucker reminds us. "Her long journey to the top is so inspiring, that it influenced me not to stop when the going gets tough," she adds.

So what further inspirations for daily life can we take away from both Jett and Westwood, and the punk movement of personal defiance? "No fear, no limits imposed by any other than yourself, no laziness when it comes to thinking and seeing the world around you," says Gil.


Read more:

Fashion statement: the rise of clothing as protest

With more fashion brands declaring themselves fur free, what's next for the fur industry?

The power of modern protest ... writ large on a T-shirt

Jonathan Koon could be the most interesting man you've never heard of