Tag Archives: Diana Vreeland

Currently Reading – Empress of Fashion, Diana Vreeland

This biography of Diana Vreeland has been out since 2012, and I’d been meaning to get it and read it, but it was not until I ran across a copy in a used bookstore that I was reminded to do so.  So much has been written about Vreeland that I feel she needs little introduction.  As far as fashion is concerned, she held three main positions: American fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar 1939 through 1962, associate editor then editor in chief at Vogue 1962 through 1971, and Special Consultant at the Costume Institute from 1972 until 1986.

What makes this biography so good is that Stuart somehow managed to cut through all the fantasy Vreeland had built around her life to give a true picture of what really transpired.  Vreeland was never one to be bothered with factual truth; she was more interested in the essence of truth.  To really understand this, I suggest reading Vreeland’s DV before reading Empress of Fashion.

As much as I love losing myself in vintage fashion magazines – the fruit of Vreeland’s labor from 1936 through 1971 – it is her time at the Costume Institute that I find to be the most interesting.  After being fired by Vogue in 1971, Vreeland was at loose ends when the opportunity to organize exhibitions for the Met’s Costume Institute came her way.  Her official title was that of Special Consultant, but she was actually acting as curator of exhibitions.

From the beginning, Vreeland’s approach to fashion exhibition was unorthodox.  She was not interested in chronology, nor in the construction of garments.  Her belief was that the important thing was the mood that clothing portrayed.  She never let historical facts get in the way of how an exhibition should feel to the visitor to the museum.  The curatorial staff at the Costume Institute often went behind Vreeland, correcting  anachronisms and historical errors.

Despite her dismissal of a factual approach, Mrs. Vreeland  did not believe that fashion was art.  As she put it, “People say a little Schiaparelli design is an art form.  Why can’t it just be a very good dress?”  And that, to me is the essence of Mrs. Vreeland’s contribution to fashion display.  Fashion should be seen as an important part of a  culture, and whether or not it is art makes no difference.

Vreeland transformed the Costume Institute from an afterthought at the Met to a department that brought in the crowds.  Many of her exhibitions broke attendance records, and brought needed attention to fashion studies and the display of dress.  Still, many did not agree with her methods.  The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London  wrote in 1983, “… We are all totally opposed to Diana Vreeland’s degradation of fashion.”

But no matter, as Diana continued doing what she did best, creating exhibitions that inspired designers and delighted the public.  And while I might prefer a more factual approach to fashion curation, I can certainly appreciate how much she did for the discipline.

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Looking Forward to Seeing Mr. James

Charles James, that is, and seeing his work, not the man himself.   You probably have heard by now that this year’s exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan in New York is on the clothing of James.  I can’t think of a more appropriate designer to have his work on display in an art museum than James.  His work really did transcend fashion and entered into the realm of something higher.

I’ll be writing more about James when the exhibition opens, and hopefully I’ll be visiting New York this summer so I can see this show.  But today I want to talk about the Costume Institute.

I’ve written about how after Diana Vreeland was fired from Vogue, she was asked to be the director of the Costume Institute.   Under her direction, the Costume Institute blossomed, with the exhibitions being theatrical and extravagant productions.  You can say that her work there has set the tone for what the Costume Institute does today.  It helps when going to their shows to remember that it is after all, an art museum.  We history people tend to want a strict historical accuracy, but the shows, both under Vreeland and today, are about visual impact.

Vreeland’s vision for the Costume Institute continues today.  She’s probably the most important person in the history of the institute.  What a shame that the newly remodeled galleries have been named for Vogue editor Anna Wintour.  I realize that Wintour, as the chairperson of the fund-raising gala has raised millions of dollars for the Met.  It’s just one more example of the person who gives the money, or in this case, coerces it from others, gets the building named for her, instead of the woman who made the institution what it is today.

I feel that the Metropolitan is a bit too cozy with Vogue and its editor.  One of the biggest criticisms of the most recent shows has been that they are too commercial. The idea that a magazine whose mission it is to promote the fashion industry, and to help sell clothes should have such influence over the one show a year that the Costume Institute produces seems to me to be a big part of the problem.  I’m just hoping that with the Charles James exhibition, this will not be an issue, as there nothing to be sold.

The photo of Diana Vreeland was taken at the Costume Institute and was published in Cheap Chic by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, 1978.

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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 – DV by Diana Vreeland

I was very tempted to write this post in the style of Diana Vreelend.  It would have started something like this:

I adore this book…it’s fun, fun, fun! Yes, it’s HUGE!

But then I realized I could never keep up that kind of energy through 500 words or so, and I decided to just be myself.  As if anyone could come close to being Ms. Vreeland!

With the  release of a new documentary and book about her life, Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has to Travel, much has been written about the longtime editor of first Harper’s Bazaar, and then Vogue.  After reading the memoir of Grace Mirabella, I decided I must get another perspective on the story of how the two women worked together at Vogue, and of the fallout after Vreeland’s firing in 1971.

Interestingly, and tellingly, she says very little about her dismissal, and she never mentions Mirabella, a woman which whom she worked closely for ten years,  by name.  She actually went on more about how she cured a friend of the hiccups than she talked about an event that changed the course of her life!

To call the book an autobiography is a bit of a stretch of the genre.  It’s actually a collection of loosely structured remembrances, all told in the most enthusiastic style.  At times I wondered if this book was the inspiration for Forrest Gump.  She talks about how she looked up to see a plane fly over, and of course it was Lindbergh on his way to Paris.  And this starts the chain of marvelous serendipity that seems to make up the life of Diana Vreeland.

Yes, the book is fun,fun,fun, but at times it is really hard to distinguish what really happened from Vreeland’s perception of the events.  And there are contradictions, which are of course, intentional.  Vreeland would go on and on about truth, and then describe how she would make her maids lie.  And at the very end, she comes clean, telling the reader that it’s most important to be able to Fake It, and admits to having done so throughout the book.

This is precisely what Mirabella pointed out about Vreeland – that her legend was based on the persona rather than the person.  And you’ve got to hand it to her.  She’s been dead for 22 years, and she still fascinates us.  Will the same be true of Mirabella or of Anna Wintour?  I can’t imagine it!

Back cover of D.V.

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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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