Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Westwoodiana Part 2: Puer Aeternus and the New Romantics

Vivienne Westwood didn't consider herself a designer during her Sex and Seditionaries eras. It wasn't until the New Romantic sartorial crest of the early 1980s that Westwood assembled what she deemed a proper collection.

The 1983 collection was, of course, Pirates, a design theme Westwood stated was inspired by an engraving of a pirate that she encountered at the V & A in London.

It was said that the New Romantic/Pirates look was free from the neo-political, anarchic agency that permeated punk rock and its trappings. The punk clothing was a visual externalization of this agency, whereas the New Romantic was more about "dressing up," and doing so for the sake of the costume and the pleasure it gave.

The New Romantic (and most specifically in his pirate incarnation) indeed had an agenda, and one that has not often been discussed. This was a psychological agenda rather than a social or political one, for the New Romantic was an expression of Puer Aeternus at his most Crayola fantastic.

Puer Aeternus is the Latin term for "eternal boy," one with a strong Peter Pan streak. In extremis, certain New Romantics played at a kind of warpaint narcissism suited to a child's concept of enhancement. By adopting the full monty of pirate gear and playacting accordingly, the trappings became more than mere trend, forcing a statement whether the intent existed or not.

Although the punk movement also housed the Puer Aeternus (Steve Jones and Johnny Rotten are prime examples of this), the punk mask was one of ugliness and loutish behavior (and we leave it to Umberto Eco to determine if this were the more exciting and rewarding mask to don). The New Romantics, on
the other hand, celebrated a flamboyant beauty antithetical to the punk image. With their sartorial swagger and cosmetic plumage, they engaged in one of the most fulfulling of childhood fantasies--that of the pirate--while maintaining an extremity of beauty completely adrift from the pirate actuality.

Although not taking herself seriously as a designer until 1983, it seems clear that Westwood was serving at least Malcolm McLaren's notions of oppositional beauty as far back as 1971, and then addressing her own eternal child with the New Romantics. Either image was not a disciplined and restrained one, but one that resulted in grandiose gestures in either behavior or decorative adornment. It might be said that the punk styling was a case of fashion res ipsa loquitur. From that vantage point, it was a wellspring of its own necessity pre-existing in economically depressed cultural pockets that Westwood and McLaren simply mined and translated from the rag bin.

Puer Aeternus has a female counterpart called Puella, and as with punk the pirate look assumed no gender bifurcation. The image was a unisex one that could be enjoyed and exploited equally, and again there was an implied lack of the responsibilities of adulthood. The New Romantic had as his or her closest (British) relative the fop or dandy, a literary character who so overdid his costume that he became an outsider simply by means of his outrageous affectations.

Throughout her career, Vivienne Westwood has created and discarded mantles that have almost a psychic's knowledge of vibration, if we can assume the view of the thing unto itself. In the New Romantic/Pirate look, the cocksure beauty demonstrated a purity far beyond fashion and into the mindscape of our own creatively unfulfilled adult children. That child, as you know, may always scratch just below the surface, ready to brandish his black powder pistol.

Images: Adam Ant
Pirates, V & A


WendyB said...

I wanted to look just like Adam Ant back in the day.

jen said...

That 83 collection besides being shown when I was just a year old had to have made my favorite pair of shoes ever, and I guess thanks to Kate Moss for wearing the old pair and getting them back intro production because I lovee my Westwood pirate boots!

Suzanna Mars said...

Jen, I gave away ALL of my old stuff--Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, and some really great Betsey Johnson dresses, so make sure to hang on to yours!

Everything old is new again, eventually.

Claire said...

Patrick Wolf is the modern day Pirate/New Romantic.

I'm just reaching the age where items once treasured, then tossed out are coming back to haunt me. First regret, Doctor Martins circa 1991 (?). What I wouldn't give to have them in my possession now.

Lesson learned.

a. said...

i just saw mark morris' "the hard nut", and his drosselmeier reminded me very much of adam ant... in general he had a very pirate-y look. i can't find a really good pic but if you go to http://markmorrisdancegroup.org/resources/photo_gallery/117 and click on the third or fifth pic in it shows him. i've never paid much attention to the nutcracker story but this makes me think that drosselmeier is in a way a peter pan-ish character. hmm. he also has a white streak in his hair... i can't figure out what that's referencing, though i think johnny depp as sweeney todd has one... anyway, it is really interesting how this whole look is coming back 'round again (though the hard nut is a few years old now.)