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Why the Swagger of Vivienne Westwood’s 1981 Pirate Collection Resonates 40 Years Outlet

Forty years after Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren staged their first fashion show, full of pirate looks, swagger has returned to the runways. It’s present in Rick Owens’s elegantly tattered dresses (a wink at Schiap’s tear print perhaps) and in Matty Bovan’s high-seas fantasies. Both boast an imperfect glamour that resonates in a time when many are feeling shipwrecked by the pandemic. A little bit of swashbuckling bravado might be just what we need to keep up the fight.

Westwood and McClaren showed Pirates about six months before the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, and a few months after Adam Ant had hired Malcolm McLaren for a post-punk rebranding. In a 1981 interview the musician recalled that McLaren was then fascinated with the 1980 movie The Island, while Westwood’s focus was on 18th-century dandies and Indigenous Americans. All of these influences came together in a new look for Ant—and in the Pirates collection.

“I’m sick of this new Puritanism there’s been in England since ’76. I think the kids, too, are sick of being thought of as ‘We’re all in the gutter together,’ dressing only in black and gray, being the Blank Generation,” Ant told journalist Michael Watts. “I like a bit of color, a bit of flash, a bit of honor, a bit of dash.” The pop star wasn’t alone in wanting to move on from safety pins and T-shirts. New Romanticism, said Helen Robinson, owner of the famous PX boutique, is “a reaction to the high-tech and hard geometric lines of punk. We’re sick of that.”

In a 1981 piece critic Richard Buckley noted the shift from punk’s “anti-fashion and antiheroes” stance to a more “pro” and lighthearted mood. “The New Order, as it is sometimes called,” he wrote, “reveres fashion and embraces a new set of heroes. Extreme styles, outrageous proportions, and makeup for men and women are all used to strike a new attitude.” And there were plenty of clubs in which to do so. To many it seemed that the youthful energy that had made London the center of Swinging ’60s style had returned. “We’re making people realize that Britain has got something happening again which has been missing, I think anyway,” said Blitz host and Visage singer Steve Strange in 1982.

Worn by men and women alike, there was fluidity to the New Romantic look, which also brought softness back into fashion. “We just spent 10 years re-assimlating the ’30s through the ’70s,” said Westwood at the time. “The ’80s will be a technological age for which we need to equip ourselves with a feeling of human warmth from past ages—of culture taken from the time of pirates and Louis XIV.” New times call for new role models, but the need for connection is as important today as it was four decades ago.

Here, we chart the evolution of the pirate look in fashion from 1981 to 2021.