I finally watched "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," a documentary about the life and ideas of the greatest fashion editor and stylist of the 20th century. The word "visionary" is thrown around a lot, but you cannot walk away from watching this film without knowing that this woman lived, breathed and thought about the world through style and beauty. Just as there are people thinking about the world linguistically, architecturally, musically, or through scents, there are people like Vreeland who find truth in the things we put on our bodies or in our homes. These seemingly frivolous appurtenances like clothes and accessories can become part of the visual language we use to speak ourselves everyday. It certainly was the way she moved through the world, saw the world, and spoke the world. She believed that clothes could even portend cultural shifts, and said once in an interview: "You can see the approach of revolution in clothes."
Before Vreeland, fashion editors helped women to conform to whatever society ladies of the day were wearing. They taught them how to be "fashionable." After Vreeland became fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar and then Vogue, she turned the fashion spread into high art: a space from which to launch women into fantasy realms. One commentator said, "She saw the genius in vulgarity." She took her readers to Morocco, juxtaposed models with elephants, and saw whole other worlds and philosophies in colors and shapes. (Funny Face, Stanley Donen's film starring Audrey Hepburn, features a character played by Kay Thompson who is modeled after Vreeland. It's a gorgeous film; Richard Avedon was the visual consultant, and he's played by Fred Astaire.)
One of the best introductions to the profound whimsy of Vreeland's vision is the first installment of her fashion "advice" column, "Why Don't You..." in Harper's Bazaar *(1936). "Why Don't You..." is less about giving real fashion advice (unless you're Lady Gaga) and more about introducing the reader to a radical new way of thinking about what style — as opposed to fashion — is. She invites the reader to see style in the unusual, the surreal, the decadent, and the absurd, and the column almost reads like a child's game, or a series of dares.
- Zip yourself into your evening dresses?
- Waft a big bouquet around like a fairy wand?
- Wear a bowler?
- Stick Japanese hair-pins in your hair?
- Buy a transparent evening coat?
- Or a geranium chiffon toque?
- Or bright flannel gloves?
- Or a black blouse?
- Expose your fortune in an isinglass bag?
- Hide your hips under an accordion-pleated jacket?
- Wear fruit hats?
One of my favorite of her "Why Don't You..." tips is read by her granddaughter in the documentary: "Why don't you wear violet velvet mittens with everything?" Why not indeed!
Beauty, as seen by a woman who was herself no conventional beauty, was what was unusual about a person's features. She would instruct photographers to exaggerate what at the time would have been considered a model's flaws. In eras in which tidy, WASPy, so-called "perfect" looks were ideal, she celebrated Barbra Streisand's "Nerfertiti" nose, Penelope Tree's doe-eyed, doleful face, the gap between Lauren Hutton's teeth, and Mick Jagger's plump lips.
And of course she loved perfume. I still can't seem to figure out which perfume she loved, but here are some anecdotes I was able to round up. She had perfume injected into her pillows with hypodermic needles. Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says in the documentary that after she was fired by Vogue (?!), she was hired as the first-ever curator of the Met's Costume Institute, and had fragrance "pumped through the air-conditioning vents" of the exhibits. The blog Perfume Chronicles includes this fantastic quote from her George Plimpton-aided memoir, D.V.: "There’s a whole school now that says that the scent must be faint. This is ridiculous. I’m speaking from the experience of a lifetime. I always carry purse scent – that way I’m never without it. Do you notice any scent on me now? Don’t come any closer – if you have to sniff like a hound, it’s not enough!"
And although she declares that "Perfume is an extravagance," extravagance, in her world, is the precondition for the good life, a necessity and not an occasional add-on. And extravagance is not dependent on money. Luxury, decadence, and extravagence for Vreeland are fueled by imagination. (Of course, money helps!) "I believe in the dream," she says in D.V. "I think we only live in our dreams and our imagination. That's the only reality we ever really know."
I was truly moved by this documentary, and look forward to getting my mitts on D.V. and the recently released Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years, compiled by her grandson Alexander Vreeland. How can you not fall in love with a woman who, when asked by reporter Jane Pauley who the most stylish person in the world is, replies, "A racehorse," and whose ordinary thoughts include concerns like: "This world without a leopard. Who'd want to be there?" That leopard, I'm convinced, stands in for everything that is wild and beautiful. And I, for one, don't want to live in a world without them either.