September 29, 1903 – Diana Vreeland:
“I Loathe Narcissism, but I Approve of Vanity.”
She was never really a very rich woman, she was never a really beautiful woman, and yet she created beauty and she created wealth.
She discovered fashion at an early age. Yet, she didn’t start in the business until she was in her 30s, and then it was sort of an accident. Vreeland was dancing at a Manhattan nightclub where she was noticed by Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Snow loved Vreeland and her style and offered her a job the very next day. And that is how Vreeland’s career as one of the most influential magazine editors got its start.
She first made an immediate impact with her advice column Why Don’t You?, which offered deliciously extravagant tips on living well. One column read:
“Why Don’t You… rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?“
“Why Don’t You…Paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys’ nursery so they won’t grow up with a provincial point of view?“
While at Harper’s Bazaar, Vreeland discovered Betty Joan Perske and photographer Richard Avedon. She had great success, yet she was somehow never offered a top position at the magazine.
In 1962, she left Harper’s Bazaar for the chance to be editor-in chief at Vogue, where she stayed for the next decade. Even with such an important position, Vreeland’s whimsical outlook held fast. She helped launch the careers of models such as Twiggy and mentored designers like Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg.
She was the inspiration for Maggie Prescott, the commanding fashion editor in the film, Funny Face (1957), played by the delicious Kay Thompson. Avedon, who consulted on the film, was thinly disguised as the character played by Fred Astaire, with Audrey Hepburn as an unassuming bookstore clerk turned model and muse.
In 1971, Vreeland was pushed out of her editor position at Vogue. Her ideas no longer felt modern to readers. She could have retired at that point, who would blame her, given all that she had already accomplished. But Vreeland simply found a new outlet for her love of fashion by becoming a consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Under her guidance, The Met became a driving force for fashion, with exhibitions and parties, and her annual black-tie bash. Her fashion event morphed into what we now call “The Met Gala“.
Vreeland was tough on her photographers and models. She never deferred to her publishers or advertisers and she approached each new issue of her magazines with fervent zeal.
She was called “Mrs. Vreeland”, but she was a revolutionary: a career woman who changed the way women dressed while also transforming the world of magazine publishing. She created the modern-day fashion editor. Before she arrived, fashion was “society ladies” who would offer advice on how women could please their husbands.
Vreeland was responsible for Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy‘s look during the Kennedys’ early days at the White House.
She had a taste for the exotic, the extraordinary and the extreme. For all her extravagance, Vreeland also possessed a common touch. She was an early champion of denim and bikinis, she brought color and fantasy to her readers’ lives as well as images of clothing they could actually wear.
In the documentary The Eye Has To Travel (2012), directed by her granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Ali MacGraw, who worked as her assistant before she became an actor tells of Vreeland “storming into the office and barking out orders”. MacGraw describes a woman more terrifying than Anna Wintour, the current editor of Vogue, or the magazine editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). She reduced her staff to tears, yet they remained devoted to her.
Vreeland had had almost no formal education. She was such an intimidating presence that few dared challenge her. When she was organizing costume exhibitions at The Met, other curators questioned her academic credentials. She was in her element when she was editing a magazine but was a diminished figure when she was between jobs and trying to adjust to ordinary life. Vreeland’s own style was actually quite classical. Despite her own arresting appearance: tight skull cap, dyed jet-black hair, she believed in elegance above all else.
Vreeland was open to the world outside of fashion shows and the catwalks. She thrived in the 1960s, embracing pop culture, Civil Rights and the new sexual freedom. She was the first to publish a picture of Mick Jagger in a fashion magazine. The pages of Vogue featured supermodels Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, but also Truman Capote, Maria Callas, and Luchino Visconti. Vreeland was drawn to models who were very tall, such as Veruschka von Lehndorff, or had irregular features. She chose Barbra Streisand as a model, advising the young singer to emphasize her “Nefertiti nose”.
Over the course of her career, Vreeland shaped two of the most prominent magazines of the 20th century and made fashion a subject at one of the world’s most influential museums. The debate on whether fashion is art still goes on, but at least it’s a conversation.
There are some hard lessons to be learned from Vreeland, including that being true to one’s self is what makes a person memorable, even if your ideas might not be to everyone’s liking.
You simply must have a cope of her memoir D.V. (1984). I own a first edition paperback which I sometimes grab off the shelf and openly randomly to a page, every single one highly quotable. Here’s one:
“Well, I’ve got to become an original because if my looks are not going to bring me somewhere, I’ve got to be original in thought, style and the way I express myself.“
Here are a few more:
“You’ve got to have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody. I’m not talking about lots of clothes.”
“A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.“
“Where Chanel came from in France is anyone’s guess. She said one thing one day and another thing the next. She was a peasant—and a genius. Peasants and geniuses are the only people who count and she was both.“
“Style—all who have it share one thing: originality.“
“I have a terrible time remembering exactly when my birthday is. Age is totally boring…“
“Unshined shoes are the end of civilization.“
“Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.“
“You know the greatest thing is passion, without it what have you got? I mean if you love someone you can love them as much as you can love them but if it isn’t a passion, if it isn’t burning, if it isn’t on fire, you haven’t lived.“