Ensemble from the “Portrait” Collection, Vivienne Westwood Ready-to-Wear, Fall/Winter 1990–1991

Waleria Dorogova


DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA177


With her characteristic historicist approach, Vivienne Westwood designed numerous garments inspired by French works of art from London’s Wallace Collection. For an ensemble in the fall/winter 1990 “Portrait” collection, she borrowed motifs from two masterpieces—a seductive pastoral canvas by François Boucher (1703–1770), printed onto an eighteenth-century-style corset, and a design from a vanity mirror by André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732) printed on a pair of black velvet leggings. Works by both artists continued to be sources of inspiration for subsequent collections. The attention to the artistic culture in the Age of Enlightenment thus marked an eminent creative change in Westwood’s design aesthetic.

Vivienne Westwood, Fall/Winter 1990.

Photograph by Niall McInerney, Fashion Photography Archive

The Object in Detail

The corset center shows a photographic print of François Boucher’s painting Daphnis and Chloé (1743), depicting the literary lovers as shepherd and shepherdess, as told by ancient novelist Longus. The wide-strapped corset with a rectangular décolletage is made of lamé and synthetic satinized jersey and constructed with internal boning, shaping the female torso into a V-triangle. Corset laces were exchanged for a zipper in the back. In terms of historical reference, this corset is based on an eighteenth-century stay, while it also has a precedent in Westwood’s work. This particular shape was introduced in the “Harris Tweed” collection (1987) in monochrome fabrics and was revived in the “Statue of Liberty” corset (fall/winter 1988, “Time Machine” collection), made of plain silver lamé. Later it appeared with a print of Rubens nudes in fall/winter 1993, sometimes with sleeves attached and various other alterations. Vivienne Westwood is considered a central figure for the reinvention of the corset and its transformation into daywear, contrary to the historical limitation of strictly serving as underwear. Westwood chose the central motif of Boucher’s pastoral for its erotic content and symbolic value for the modern perception of a seemingly frivolous eighteenth century. Moreover, it is exemplary for the pictorial tradition of the Arcadian landscape and the idea of an idealized past; the latter being a central thought in Westwood’s creative process.

The print on the black stretch velvet leggings is a design by Louis XIV’s court engraver Jean Bérain (1637–1711), which was originally used for the brass inlay of the tortoiseshell reverse of a mirror by cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle. The so-called “grotesques” show motifs of Bacchanalia arranged in an ornamental manner. The original design is deconstructed and particular elements are arranged symmetrically along the hips and legs. In the early 1990s, the Boulle design became a frequently recurring standard pattern in Vivienne Westwood’s designs, used for a variety of garments, colors, and fabric types, for instance stretch satin catsuits, tulle gowns, and velvet corsets (fall/winter 1991–1992). Boucher’s Daphnis and Chloé appeared on other items of dress in the “Portrait” collection as well.

Boucher, Bérain, and Boulle were star decorators of unequalled prominence at the court of Versailles and the Wallace Collection in London is particularly famous for housing the largest collection of Boucher paintings and Boulle furniture. Vivienne Westwood has frequently pointed out the Wallace Collection’s general importance as an educational place for design students, explaining that new creation needs to be based on tradition. Since her first runway collection (“Pirate,” fall/winter 1981–1982), she has demonstrated a considerable interest in the cut and construction of historical garments and paintings as an inspirational source. The charge of historical content did not prevent the garments from being designed with modern thought, which, in regard to the Boucher and Boulle prints, is expressively noticeable in the choice of photographic print on elasticized fabrics. The virtuosity and the rich ornamentation of the original artwork create a contrast to the material simplicity and become antithetic to the modern silhouette.

The Object in Context

Popular culture in the 1980s and 1990s saw a strong renewal of interest toward eighteenth-century society, manifesting itself in numerous museum exhibitions on the subject, movies set in the period, and evidently fashion design. Early on, Vivienne Westwood, being known for her subversive and provocative approach, became a central figure of this phenomenon. Throughout the 1980s, with growing intensity after 1985, Westwood constantly adopted themes from painting or historical dress in an eclectic manner. In 1988 she proclaimed her collections would be designed under the main title “Britain must go pagan” with the intention to evoke an ancient European past, which she considered nobler in every sense; the idealistic implication of “pagan” being linked to classical antiquity and neoclassicism. With “Portrait,” the first post-pagan collection, Westwood wanted her models to appear as if they had just stepped out of a painting (a conceptual idea that also dominated many of Christian Lacroix’s creations). The turn to the artistic heritage of the early rococo followed the pagan years with an analogous inclination toward nobility and elegance. Future collections continued to evoke an idealized concept of culture visible in historical epochs and their artistic accomplishments.

In 1996 Vivienne Westwood explained her method and her intention in the documentary series Painted Ladies (Channel 4, UK), with a contribution of dress historian Anne Hollander, who was known for her studies of the close relations between painting and fashion. The acknowledgment of the historical past is vital to the process of creation, as Westwood herself emphasized in the prologue of Painted Ladies: “All my ideas come from studying the ideas of the past. There is a link between art and fashion. I couldn’t design a thing if I wouldn’t look at art.”

Impact on Fashion

When they were first shown on the runway in March 1990, the Boucher prints were immediately characterized as representative of the collection. Fashion writer Bernadine Morris concluded shortly after the show in the New York Times: “A conundrum wrapped in an enigma, Vivienne Westwood embodies the farthest reaches of radical British fashion. What was the theme of her anti-establishment collection? Eighteenth-century portraits, she said without batting an eye … A classical woodland scene from a Boucher painting was printed on scarfs and bodices. Miss Westwood’s vision is unsettling, and that is still a component of British fashion.”

Today, both Boucher and Boulle prints are considered emblematic of Westwood’s historical repertoire and highly symbolic of her early 1990s designs.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Hedley Jo. François Boucher: Seductive Visions. London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2004.

Le XVIIIe au Goût du Jour. Couturiers et Créateurs de Mode au Grand Trianon. Exhibition Catalogue, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon and Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris (Musée Galliera). Paris: Éditions Artlys, 2011.

Find in Library Morris Bernadine. ““Quirky Britain in Fashion’s Sea”.” The New York Times, 13 March 1990.

Find in Library Painted Ladies”. Channel 4 documentary, 1996. Part 1: “Nobility, Virtue and Nobility,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyswGKKhdAw. Part 2: “Aesthetic Lust,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlkTluY-e_c. Part 3: “Luxury and Frivolity,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MlIkXdlOjc.

Find in Library Ramond Pierre. André-Charles Boulle: Ébéniste, Ciseleur & Marqueteur Ordinaire du Roy. Paris: Éditions Vial, 2010.

Find in Library Simon Marie. Mode et Peinture: Le Second Empire et l’impressionisme. Paris: Hazan, 1995.

Find in Library Steele Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Vivienne Westwood: Why I Love the Wallace. Video. The Wallace Collection, n.d. http://www.wallacecollection.org/news/30

Find in Library Wilcox Claire. Vivienne Westwood. London: V&A Publishing, 2004.

Wilcox Claire. “Vivienne Westwood, 34 Years in Fashion.” National Gallery of Australia, 2004. http://nga.gov.au/westwood/Wilessay.cfm.