Tag Archives: autobiography

Currently Viewing – Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

This week I finally got to watch this documentary on Diana Vreeland, and it was worth the wait.  Because the film was produced by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, I was afraid that it would be a bit of a sappy tribute.  But no,no,no!  It was carefully crafted from Vreeland’s 1984 memoir, DV, and from interviews she did at the time with Diane Sawyer, Dick Cavett and a smirking Jane Pauley.

In 1983 Vreeland asked George Plimpton to help her write the story of her life.  They conducted a series of interviews which were edited to form DV.  The film uses voice actors to recreate the interviews, along with the film interviews.  While the book gives one a glimpse into the life and character of Vreeland, the film brings what is essentially the same material to life.  Reading Vreeland’s words and seeing her speak them are two entirely different experiences.

The film also includes quite a few interviews with people who worked with her both at Vogue and at the Costume Institute.  It was really interesting how few of them could talk about Vreeland without gesturing with their arms or without exaggerating their voices.  They could not recall her without showing the grand manner in which she spoke.

Particularly interesting was the interview with Harold Koda, who at the time was an intern, and then an assistant curator at the Costume Institute.  He addressed the criticism that the Vreeland shows were long on theatrics  but short on scholarship.  He explained that it was more important to Vreeland that the museum visitors feel the era being represented, rather than merely learning about it.

For an exhibition of 18th clothing Koda carefully researched the high wigs worn at court.  After faithfully reproducing the hairstyle, Vreeland insisted that it was not high enough, so the wig was expanded.  Upon seeing the mannequins they were to use for the show she exclaimed, “They have no éclat! Haut! Haut! Haut!”

Also interesting were the interviews with photographer David Bailey and model Penelope Tree, especially when they were asked to recount the same episode.  Even though the interviews were conducted separately, it was like they were finishing one another’s sentences.

I was struck by who was not included – Grace Mirabella, Polly Mellon, and Si Newhouse, who worked with her at Vogue and Conde Nast.  Perhaps they were asked to interview and declined, but I think that their inclusion, even in a very small way, would have added another dimension to the film.

The film is now available on Netflix, or on pay-per-view via Youtube.  I got the dvd from Netflix, which includes a nice section of additional footage of the interviews.  I would rarely suggest this, but I really think that if you have not read the book, you should see the film first.  After watching The Eye Must Travel (twice!) I’m now reading the book with very fresh eyes.

 

Mrs. Vreeland in her living room.  This is from the back cover of DV.

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Currently Reading : In My Own Fashion by Oleg Cassini

I’m a real fan of autobiographies.  It’s almost like the joy of knowing that one has the opportunity to tell history their way comes out in the reading of the storyteller’s words.  This book by Oleg Cassini is no different.  It’s a fun read, even if the self-proclaimed jetsetter gets a little over-confident in the telling.

Today, Cassini is pretty much remembered for two things:  the wardrobe he made for Jackie Kennedy, and the myriad of licensed products that carried his name starting in the 1960s.  His story is so much richer than those two aspects, which made for some pretty entertaining hours curled up with this one.

Cassini was, more than anything, a Hollywood designer.  He made clothes for the movies, and he dressed stars including his wife, Gene Tierney.  He eventually ended up owning his own design firm in New York, where he continued to make dresses that would have been right at home in Hollywood.  In other words, he believed that a woman needed to dress in a slightly sexy manner.  During his time in New York, Cassini became involved with Grace Kelly, whom he pursued, and he eventually convinced her to marry him.  It never happened, due partly to the strong objections of her family and to her growing fame in Hollywood.  And then before he knew it, she was swept off her feet by another.

In the 1950s, Oleg and his brother, Igor Cassini, became friends with Joe Kennedy.  According to the book, Oleg and Igor spent evenings on the town with Joe in the company of young women they brought along.  By the time John Kennedy was elected president, there were years of history between the Cassinis and the Kennedys.

By all accounts, the selection of Oleg Cassini to be the new First Lady’s unofficial fashion designer was an odd one.  His own vision of how a woman should look was very much at odds at how Jackie herself liked to dress.  According to Cassini, he began to think of the new First Lady as a character, with her clothing accentuating the role she would be playing.  Into this vision he wisely incorporated the clean Parisian couture look that so appealed to Jackie.  He then took his plans for her wardrobe to her hospital room in December 1960, as she had just given birth to John Junior.   All around her were sketches from other designers such as Norell and Sarmi.  But it was he who won out, having created a look just for her, totally unrelated to his regular design work.

As he put it,  “The clothes I designed for her – simple, elegant, classic – fit perfectly into her program.  From my knowledge of her taste, I had been able to predict her intentions.”

Unfortunately, Jackie had already put in an order at Bergdorf Goodman for her inaugural wardrobe, and according to most sources I’ve read, had asked them to provide the bulk of her wardrobe for the next four years.  The dress for the Inaugural Ball was already completed.  In the end she wore it, but Cassini insisted in his book that she always favored the dress he provided to her for the gala that was put on the night before the Inauguration.   This is probably true, as the dress he designed is one of the most famous of her time in the White House, and is pictured on the cover of Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, the companion volume to the 2001 Met exhibition of the same name.

For the next almost three years, Oleg continued to make the bulk of the First Lady’s wardrobe.  Jackie, a dedicated reader of fashion magazines, would tear out photos of dresses she loved, and Oleg would  work up a version, using the ideas she favored.  His studio had three fitting mannequins with the same figure as Jackie along with a live model who was Jackie’s size, so most of the fitting was done in New York.  Then the almost finished garments were taken to Washington by Oleg’s assistant, Kay McGowan, for the final fitting and the approval of Jackie.

One of  the biggest question marks of In My Own Fashion is the strange insistence by Cassini that the pillbox hat worn by Mrs. Kennedy for the Inauguration was not made by Halston.  He insisted that the idea was his, and that he and Diana Vreeland discussed how the hat would have to sit on the back of her head in order to not interfere with her hair style.

“Eventually we agreed that a pillbox would work; the actual execution of the hat was done by Marita at Bergdorf Goodman, Mrs. Kennedy’s preferred hatmaker.  And so it was rather surprising, many years later, to read in the New York Times that Halston had created the pillbox.  An outright lie, and an attempted revision of fashion history.”

So I turned to my fashion library to see what was written about it at the time.   According to John Fairchild, writing in his Fashionable Savages in 1965,  “Her (Mrs. Kennedy) inauguration pillbox from Bergdorf Goodman’s Halston is still selling.”

As it turns out, the Marita to whom Cassini was referring was Marita O’Connor, who was not even a milliner.  She was Jackie Kennedy’s millinery salesperson at Bergdorf Goodman.  She was well aware that Jackie favored the pillbox shape, as she had been wearing it all through the presidential campaign. It just seems natural that she would wear a pillbox, and since it was ordered from Bergdorf Goodman, that it would be made by Halston.

At any rate, it seems such a shame that Cassini seemed to have his nose so firmly out of joint in regards to the hat.  I can remember that soon before his death in 2005, he again reasserted his claim that he designed the pillbox.  It just seems to me that the accomplishment of helping create the fashion icon that is Jackie Kennedy would be enough to satisfy anyone’s ego.

Tomorrow, more on Cassini’s ready-to-wear business and his licensing empire.

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This Is Post Number 1000 – CLOSED

As promised, I’m celebrating this milestone by giving away this old, beat up copy of Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir, Shocking Life.  I do wish the condition could be a bit better, but as they say, don’t judge the book by its cover.  Within the tattered covers is some of the most entertaining reading ever provided by a fashion designer.  It is a must-have book for the serious, and not so serious, fashion library.

To enter, merely leave a comment saying you are in.  You do not have to be in the US in order to enter.  Contest ends Tuesday, December 18, at noon, EST.

A big thanks to all who have encouraged me over the years.  It has meant a great deal to me.

And a little sneak peek!

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Currently Reading – In and Out of Vogue, Grace Mirabella

I love autobiographies, but I must say that I’m always a little suspicious of them.  What exactly is it that the author has chosen *not* to tell?  I mean, think about it; if you were writing the story of your life wouldn’t you chose to leave out a thing or two?  Or maybe you would tweak the facts just a little to make you not look like such a jerk.

So that is how I approach the reading of an autobiography.  I just assume the writer is not laying it all out there, and that way I don’t get mad when I suspect she is holding back.  And, yes, Grace Mirabella does hold back.

But no matter, I loved this book anyway, if for no other reason than she gives the most marvelous inside view of working in fashion in the 1950s.  Before she became editor of Vogue in 1971, Mirabella worked her way up through the ranks, but before that she held various jobs in fashion retailing and manufacturing.  It’s a fascinating story and it makes searching out this book worth the time and money.

I imagine the most anticipated parts of the book were the chapters on Mirabella’s relationship with Diana  Vreeland.  Soon after Vreeland’s arrival at Vogue in 1962,  Mirabella decided she just could not work with her, and began seeking other employment.  Vreeland found out and countered by making Mirabella an offer she could not refuse – that of becoming Vreeland’s assistant.

It was a strange professional relationship that worked, with the flamboyant, over-the-top Vreeland’s ideas being brought to life by the practical no-nonsense Mirabella.  Mirabella got to be very good at translating Vreeland-speak: “I’m looking for the suggestion of something I’ve never seen.”

Throughout the 1960s, Vreeland’s vision for Vogue was in step with the zeitgeist of the time, but as the 1970s turned away from flower children with body paint and flowers in their hair, she either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change.  The bosses at Conde Nast (publisher of Vogue) grew exasperated when it became obvious that Vreeland would not listen to their demands for change.  So, in 1971 Vreeland was fired and her job was given to Grace Mirabella.  The two never spoke again, something that Mirabella said she regretted.

She talked a bit about the legend of Diana Vreeland, and about how people do not have a true picture of what she was really like.  It is obvious that Mirabella had great affection for Vreeland the person, but not for Vreeland the legend.

In that way, Mirabella began her seventeen years as editor of Vogue.  If Vreeland was totally out of step with the 1970s, then Mirabella was perfect for it.  She was the champion of designers like Halston and  Geoffrey Beene and Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren who were making clothes for the lives women were living.  Her problems began when in the 1980s fashion began to turn more flamboyant.  She confessed that she did not understand what Christian Lacroix was about.

Of course, the story goes full circle when Anna Wintour applied for a job at Vogue, and during the interview when asked what position interested her, informed Mirabella that she wanted her job.  And several years later, that is exactly what she got.  Grace Mirabella found out about her firing and Wintour’s hiring from a TV report.

When this book was written in 1995, it had only been seven years since Mirabella’s firing.  In the meantime, she started Mirabella magazine with backing from Rupert Murdock, a magazine that eventually folded.  By then Mirabella had retired from the publishing world.  She is still alive, and recently attended the launch of a new book and documentary about Vreeland, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel.

When Mirabella’s book was released in 1995, it was suspected that she was ready to get even with a few people by telling exactly what she knew and thought about them.  And while it’s by no means a nasty retaliation for the events at Vogue, she sure has some entertaining things to say about people.  I’ll end with a few favorites.

About Andy Warhol and his followers – “..the whole Factory crew smelling like unwashed underwear and pot, milling around the Vogue offices with a camera.”

About photographer Richard Avedon – “He achieved some of his best effects with girls who were utterly strung out  on dope…”

About the guests at a party given by Yves Saint Laurent – “…it was a ridiculously flaky crowd, filled with fashion victims and hangers-on and would-be actors and writers, and some aristocrats – all swingers of the refinedly degenerate type that you found around Europe in those years.”

About John Fairchild, publisher of Women’s Wear Daily – “…Fairchild built his power and his fortune by living off people obsessed with seeing their faces in print.  He lived off scandal, off competition, and off fear.”

About Anna Wintour – “I think, in retrospect, that she was so sure she’d soon end up in my job that she considered me more of a momentary inconvenience than a person she might have to answer to or contend with.”

Fun stuff!

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Currently Reading: Radical by Design

The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes: Fashion Designer, Union Organizer, Best-selling Author. By Bettina Berch

I recently ran across this biography of designer Elizabeth Hawes.  Many of us know Hawes because of her fashion industry expose of 1940, Fashion is Spinach.  In it she gives a great description of how copiers were able to steal the latest French fashions and have their knock-offs hit the market almost before the real thing.  In the past few weeks I’ve thought a lot about Hawes, mainly because of the drastic changes in the availability of  images from the latest fashion shows.  There are no more futile attempts to keep the new collections a secret.    The shows are tweeted in real time, and some design houses even live-streamed their entire show.

Compare this to just 10 years ago, when the latest collections were available on just a few websites, and you had to pay a fee to see the current images!  And in the 1950s several couturiers actually banned journalists from their shows because of the leaking of the new designs.

Continue reading

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Currently Reading: Bare Blass

I’m a fashion book junkie.  I never pass up fashion books in used book stores, in antique stores, or in the Goodwill.  If it’s one I don’t have, I usually keep it; if I already have it, I offer it for sale on my website.  I have two books today – one will not be sold because it’s a keeper.  The other one won’t be sold because I’d be embarrassed to sell anything so bad!

The first book is Bare Blass, the autobiography that Bill Blass was working on when he died.  I’ve had this little book for a while and just had not gotten around to reading it until this week.  What a joy!  The book is full of juicy tidbits of fashion history and gossip.  If there is a weakness, it is because, unfortunately, Mr. Blass was dying of cancer as the book was being written, and the last chapters are a bit empty.  But get this book, and get a great insight on one of the most private men in 20th century fashion.

The second book is Coco: The Novel  It’s a fictionalized version of Chanel’s life.  After the first three chapters, I was asking, “Who cares?”  And there are graphic sex scenes that are so silly that I laughed out loud.  So I guess it isn’t a total loss.  Amazon has it for sale for one cent.  Really.

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