Foundations of Fashion Pt. 1: Diana Vreeland

Socrates once said something to the effect that true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.

If that’s the case, then writing for Unwrinkling has perhaps nudged me a few millimeters closer to true knowledge: it has certainly forced me to realize how utterly ignorant I am about fashion, the very thing I claim to be so passionate about. In recognition of my own cluelessness, I’m going to begin a series of posts called the Foundations of Fashion, which I’ll add to every few weeks or so. These posts will serve as mini-assignments from myself to myself, to force me to research and learn about a certain person, issue, movement, or whatever else I deem relevant to understanding fashion history. (If you have an idea about something you think I should look into, I warmly welcome your suggestions.)

That being said, let’s get on with the first subject of my self-assigned homework: Diana Vreeland.

Diana Vreeland (on the right) outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Via Wikimedia Commons
Diana Vreeland (on the right) outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Via Wikimedia Commons

Diana Vreeland is respected as one of the fashion legends of the 20th century as a result of the extraordinary vision that transformed everything she touched. This vision followed her throughout her career as fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, editor-in-chief of Vogue, and special consultant for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Born in Paris in 1903, and moving at age 11 to New York, Vreeland grew up in cities that would become the fashion capitals of the future. Her aesthetic sensibilities were fed by everything from ballets to horse races, and she developed a quirky and confident sense of self in spite of her mother treating her as an “ugly duckling,” according to her son Tim Vreeland.

Harper's Bazaar, the first magazine Vreeland worked for, was already a well-established publication by the time Vreeland was hired. This is a cover from 1896. Via Wikimedia Commons
Harper’s Bazaar, the first magazine Vreeland worked for, was already a well-established publication by the time Vreeland was hired: this cover is from 1896. Via Wikimedia Commons

Diana understood early on that “If I was going to make it, I must stand out.” This concept appeared to serve her well: she was offered a job in 1936 by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, simply because Snow had been struck by the Chanel-clad Vreeland’s personal style while watching her dance at the St. Regis. At Harper’s Bazaar, Vreeland began as a columnist before being promoted to the position of fashion editor.

In 1962, Vreeland resigned from Harper’s Bazaar and began working for its rival, Vogue.  Her grandson Alexander Vreeland notes that Vogue “was a very sleepy magazine when she took it over. She really had to propel it forward into being the key fashion magazine.” And propel it she did—under Vreeland’s influence, the magazine’s coverage broadened to include music, society, art, and anything else that Vreeland saw as influencing fashion—and more importantly, life. Inadvertently, this created the model for fashion magazines as they exist today: publications that, while centered around the aesthetics of personal adornment, serve as mirrors of the times through their inclusion of a broad range of topics.

During her editorship at Vogue, Vreeland’s beautifully lavish ideas catapulted fashion to new heights and earned her a reputation for shameless exaggeration. She frequently dreamed up extravagant shoots in exotic locales, claiming, “You’ve got to give people what they can’t get at home.” According to John Fairchild of Women’s Wear Daily, Vreeland “gave fantasy to fashion, and romanticized it. Because… deep down, it’s not romantic—fashion is a very boring subject.” Actress Anjelica Huston adds, “She made it ok for women to be ambitious, to be outlandish and extraordinary.”

Vreeland helped the young Barbra Streisand turn her unique nose into an iconic trademark
Vreeland helped the young Barbra Streisand turn her unique nose into an iconic trademark. Via Wikimedia Commons

It’s clear that Vreeland embraced the unusual, frequently instructing her models to “Make an asset of your faults. If you’re tall, be taller: wear high-heeled shoes… If you have a long nose, hold it up and make it your trademark.” One such nose that Vreeland helped turn into an iconic trademark was Barbra Streisand’s: the editor-in-chief had a brilliant eye for undiscovered talent, and she also played a pivotal role in the successes of fashion icons like Manolo Blahnik, Diane von Furstenberg, Twiggy, and Carolina Herrera. Her influence even reached Capitol Hill, as the stylish Jackie Kennedy consulted Vreeland to ask what she ought to wear to her husband’s inauguration ceremony.

Despite the public figures—from Coco Chanel to Jack Nicholson—that Vreeland called her friends, she earned a reputation as a tough, if brilliant, woman to work for. Though the infamously chilly fictional editor from the novel-turned-film “The Devil Wears Prada” wasn’t modeled after Vreeland, she might as well have been, hearing some of Vreeland’s former assistants reminisce on their time with her. Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who directed a post-humous documentary about Diana, comments, “Her assistants would cry at night and then come back the next day wanting more… because she gave people so much inspiration.” Vreeland claimed of herself that she was “charming,” but admits, “naturally, I expect someone to do as much work as I do!”

Despite the fashion-industry-altering whirlwind that she generated during her years at Vogue, Vreeland’s habit of sparing no expense in her pursuit of the perfect spread eventually outstripped Vogue’s budget. She was fired from her position in 1971, but refused to let the termination signal the end of her career: “I was only 70. What was I supposed to do, die?”

Hey look, it's a caption
Vreeland, on the far left and far right, at a Costume Institute exhibit. Via Wikimedia Commons

By the next year, Vreeland went to work as special consultant to the Met’s Costume Institute. In her signature manner, Vreeland’s unconventional approach caused a buzz: she made Costume Institute openings into fantastic society events, bringing interest and life into the dusty Museum galleries. Her exhibits were sensational, combining dazzling costuming with music, celebrity guests, and even perfume-laden air pumped into the room through the air vents. She never wanted to limit her appeal to high society, however, and claimed, “If an eight-year-old girl from Harlem doesn’t understand what she’s looking at, I’m wasting my time.” Despite the fact that Vreeland had never pursued a college education, she seems to have handled the museum world deftly: art historian John Richardson notes, “She was not academic… She knew the history of fashion, but didn’t get bogged down in it. And she was about ideas, and the magic of fashion.”

Images from a Costume Institute exhibit, via Wikimedia Commons
More images from Costume Institute exhibit; Vreeland is the figure on the far right. Via Wikimedia Commons

After 86 years of whirling through life in the center of that magic, Diana Vreeland died of a heart attack in 1989. Her deep influence on the roles of women in society, the way that people view fashion, and the purpose of the fashion magazine made her legendary and rightfully earned her the title “Empress of Fashion.”

For more information, check out my sources:

Most quotes were pulled from the 2011 documentary “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.” Footage of Diana and interviews with her friends, colleagues and family make this an indispensable resource for anyone trying to get a better sense of this extraordinary woman’s strong, funny, and sometimes bizarre character.

I also pulled some from this interview with the maker of the documentary.

Specific dates were provided by this Voguepedia timeline.

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