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The Mini Crini

March 26, 2007

I never realized Vivienne Westwood was a comedian until I visited an exhibition of her work at San Francisco's de Young Museum a few day ago. If there's one thing that sets the British fashion designer's clothing and shoes apart from other designers of her generation, it's her sense of humor. As I walked through the small show, it seemed to be that Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson got much of their inspiration for their comedy Zoolander from Ms. Westwood.

Many garments read like naughty jokes in a Benny Hill sketch. Even some of her punk stuff, like a dress with a pair of naked breasts stenciled on the front, is more funny than it is anarchic or sexy. (We mustn't forget, after all, that the designer opened a store in the 60s in London with partner Malcolm McLaren, whose name, which was broadcast to the world under a huge pink sign, read "SEX".)

Throughout her career, Westwood has maintained her sense of wild parody. One of my favorite sections of the exhibition was that devoted to the "mini crini" -- a truncated version of the austere Victorian crinoline which is both childish and kinky. Her beautifully uptight ensembles made out of traditional knits like Harris tweed and tartan are as irreverent as they are respectful.

Sometimes the fun is more flagrant. A 1995 ensemble entitled "Power Suit", for instance, has a headpiece that resembles a judge's wig. The elegant lines of Westwood's "Bubble Dress" (2000), meanwhile, are crawling with tiny, glossy plastic ladybugs and plastic snails. Another outfit for a woman had a huge red velvet codpiece peeking out from the folds of fabric around the groin area.

Near the end of the exhibition, Westwood is quoted as saying: "The real link that connects all of my clothes is the idea of the heroic." I think there is something deeply heroic about the designer's unflagging sense of humor. In an environment that takes itself as seriously as the world of high fashion, it's refreshing to see someone blowing an affectionate raspberry at it all, and doing it so inventively over so many decades.

If there's one image that finally defines Westwood's career, it's probably British super model Naomi Campbell's famous fall on the catwalk during the designer's Anglomania show in 1994. She was wearing a pair of ridiculously suspenseful Westwood heels. The effort was nothing short pf heroic.

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