DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL is an intimate portrait and a vibrant celebration of one of the most influential women of the 20th century, an enduring icon whose influence changed the face of fashion, beauty, art, publishing and culture itself forever.
Along the way, the story of Vreeland illustrates the evolution of women into roles of power and prominence throughout the 20th century, and travels through some of the century’s greatest historical and cultural eras, including Paris’ Belle Epoque, New York in the roaring twenties, and London in the swinging sixties. It also spans such historical events as the great wars, the flights of Lindbergh, the romance of Wallis and Windsor, the Kennedy inauguration, and the freewheeling spirit of the 1960′s youthquake, and the advent of countless fashion revolutions from the bikini to the blue jean.
Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was the 20th Century’s greatest arbiter of style, an exotic and vibrant character who, during her fifty-year reign as the “Empress of Fashion,” dazzled the world with her unique vision of style high and low. She launched Twiggy, advised Jackie O, and coined some of fashion’s most eloquent proverbs such as “the bikini is the biggest thing since the atom bomb.” She lived a vibrant and remarkable life, and as the star performer in her own drama, Diana began writing the script for it at an early age.
It all started during the Belle Époque: modernism, Art Nouveau, the Ballets Russes, and haute couture. Diana was fascinated with the glamorous and eccentric characters of this era who paraded through her parents’ living room in Paris. But her childhood was also marked by the loveless relationship she had with her mother, an American beauty. “I was always her ugly little monster,” Diana recalled. As World War I started, the family moved back to America. Diana, forced to speak English, developed a stutter and failed in school. Eventually she dropped out and found refuge in dance, a true passion.
If Diana felt insecure about her looks, she never wallowed in it. Instead, she created her own world in which style, originality, and allure were supreme. She invented a dazzling persona that embraced every moment of life as an adventure, whether she was witnessing the coronation of George V or riding horses with Buffalo Bill in Wyoming. At 19, she captured the heart of one of the most handsome and eligible bachelors, Reed Vreeland – “the most ravishing, devastating killer-diller,” as she put it later. Together they settled in London and started a life full of romantic trips around Europe in their Bugatti coupé: Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Rome. During these years, she cultivated her love of couture and became friends with all the couturiers in Paris.
Diana’s unexpected career in fashion began upon her return to New York in 1936 when Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, noticed her unique style and look at a party. Diana was hired as Bazaar’s fashion editor, and she immediately became renowned for her provocative “Why don’t you?” column that dared readers to open their imagination and live their dreams. She would write homilies such as, “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead Champagne to keep its gold,” or “have a white monkey-fur bedcover mounted on yellow velvet?” Through her column and photography spreads, Diana lent the magazine pages of her amazing flair for beauty, high and low. Photographer Richard Avedon, who affectionately called her his “crazy aunt,” exclaimed, “she was and remains the only genius fashion editor.”
After twenty-five years at Harper’s Bazaar, Diana resigned and took over as Vogue editor-in-chief. It was the swinging sixties, where – as Diana would say – “you could have a bump on your nose, it made no difference so long as you had a marvelous body and carriage.” Uniqueness was being celebrated and Vreeland’s transformation of Vogue was at the vanguard of this cultural revolution. The pages of Vogue exploded with fashion, art, music, film; this became its “golden years.” It was suddenly a young, new and exciting magazine, where models had personalities and fashion spoke to all women. Diana became a living legend, with her striking silhouette, her jet-black hair, and her peculiar voice, somewhere between high society and street slang. Her famous red living room, “a garden in hell,” became the headquarters for New York arts and society. Diana would look upon these years as her most glorious ones; she had finally found an era fit for her vivid and wild imagination.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Diana was abruptly fired from Vogue in 1971, turning the fashion world upside down. Rumors had it that she was so distraught that she took to bed for a year, but Diana was far from having her last dance. In 1972, at age seventy, she started working at the Met’s Costume Institute where she set new standards for exhibiting fashion worldwide, awakening an institution that had been forever sleepy. Like a film director, she created sets in which elaborate fantasies came to life. Her controversial approach – based on drama and theatre sometimes more than historical fact – was criticized by some historians, but they were silenced when her shows brought in huge crowds and put the Costume Institute on the map. Diana blended fact with fantasy throughout her career, even once exclaiming that Charles Lindberg had flown over her lawn in Brewster on his way to Paris. Upon being asked if her story was fact or fiction, she responded, “Faction!”
Diana Vreeland was the oracle of fashion for much of the 20th century, inviting us to join her on a voyage of perpetual reinvention and take part in the adventure of life. Through her trained and diligent eye, she opened the door of our minds and gave us the freedom to imagine. Her images and accomplishments are as fresh and relevant now as they were then, and her spirit is just a vibrant and relevant today. As Jackie Onassis once put it: “To say Diana Vreeland has dealt only with fashion trivializes what she has done. She has commented on the times in a wise and witty manner. She has lived a life.”