Could A Working Class Woman Like Vivienne Westwood Make It Today?

20 Jan, 2023

In her latest column for MAD//Insight, Vicki Maguire explains how we're failing working class kids and why it's vital more is done to get them into the creative industries.

When Dame Vivienne Westwood sadly died last month, the most fitting tribute I could pay was to tweet one of her most famous quotes: "I didn't know how a working class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world". 

A creative genius, I had the privilege of working for her back in the day as a junior designer when I was failing in my fashion career. Viv sacked me for being useless, but there were no hard feelings - not least because her words resonated with me. A working class lass myself, I also had doubts as to whether I could make it in the world of creativity. 

Because of her doubts, Westwood gave up her silversmith course at art college and trained instead to be a teacher. However, she never repressed her creative impulses and even when working as a primary school teacher, still made and sold her own jewellery at a stall on Portobello Road.

When she got married to Hoover factory apprentice Derek Westwood in 1962, she even made her own wedding dress. Then of course, she met Malcolm McLaren, for whom she started making clothes, before going on to found the global fashion empire that lives on today, whilst helping invent punk and new romantic movements along the way.

When I made the switch from fashion to advertising, design to copy, her story and words stayed with me. Though I had doubts, I was determined that my social background should never be a barrier to my creativity, just like Viv hadn’t. But it’s harder now for working class girls like Viv and me to start out on a creative career today.  

According to data last year from The Sutton Trust, which campaigns to tackle low social mobility in the UK, only 12% of the creative industries workforce are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, compared to the national average of 29% - and it’s a statistic that is worsening, having decreased by 30% since 2017. 

Meanwhile, people from privileged backgrounds are more than twice as likely to land a job in the creative industries. 

It’s not just advertising that has a problem with working class representation either. A study released last month found that the proportion of musicians, writers and artists with working-class origins has shrunk by half since the 1970s. Analysis of Office for National Statistics data found that 16.4% of creative workers born between 1953 and 1962 had a working-class background, but that had fallen to just 7.9% for those born four decades later.

Despite the importance of the creative industries, which contribute £11bn to the UK economy, the report also mentions that there’s a ‘double disadvantage’ for working class women who are almost five times less likely to land a creative job than men from privileged backgrounds.

The creative industry might be abuzz with initiatives when it comes to improving diversity, but it seems they are not working. It’s a far cry from the 60s and early 70s when working class kids were being hailed as the bright young things.

It’s therefore imperative we do more to try and increase the number of working class youngsters in the creative industry and ramp up initiatives to do so to enable their creative instincts and impulses.

To those ends, Havas became the first major agency to tap into the Government’s Kickstart Scheme to turbocharge our internship programme and last year, we created 100 new entry-level roles across Havas UK’s agencies from it. For context, Kickstart was only available to Universal Credit claimants aged 16 to 24, so young people tending to be on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. At the end of the scheme, we were able to convert 40% into permanent positions which we’re extremely proud of. Despite Kickstart ending, this year and beyond, we will continue to create 10 new roles every quarter for such talent. 

It stands to reason that if we don’t have people from those backgrounds in our agencies, then we can’t authentically represent their lived experience in our work and speak to them. We can’t truly understand the people we’re trying to reach and to truly represent all of British society and worse, risk misrepresenting or even fetishising working class people.

But in the meantime, I think we need to keep remembering that just like Viv, you should keep trusting your creative instincts and never let your background get in the way of pursuing your creative dreams. 

Because creativity really does make the world a better place, whatever class you are. As the late, great designer said in another of her famous quotes, “Culture is necessary for human beings to evolve into better creatures”.

Vicki will be writing a column for MAD//Insight throughout the year.

Join our mailing list

Speaker updates, ticket giveaways and exciting opportunities - don’t miss a thing and be the first to know about what’s happening at MAD//Fest

* Indicates required field

Stay in touch

Follow us and keep up to date with recent activity including new keynote speakers etc...