Ugly Little Monster

posted by on 2011.10.27, under articles of interest, icons

Few people in Fashion have had the impact and the resolve of the legendary Diana Vreeland. The Paris-born fashion doyenne  began her career editing Harper’s Bazaar in 1936.  “The first thing to do is to arrange to be born in Paris,” she once said. “After that, everything follows quite naturally.  Her mother called her “ugly little monster” and she certainly wasn’t a conventional beauty.  She had the kind of look the French call jolie laide,  she transformed herself into an original, a unique expression of elegance and style.

She took on Vogue as she was on the verge of turning 60, a time when most are thinking about getting out of the business, to become one of the most influential people in the World of fashion.  At 69  she was fired, but she didn’t crumble,  she was a survivor first and foremost, she became instead, until her death in 1989,  the “muse-in-residence” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  She trail blazed a new sense of identity for  women in that “aging fashion mentor” role.

Richard Avedon, in his memorial speech at her eulogy, said that Diana Vreeland invented the fashion editor.   Without Vreeland there probably wouldn’t have been an Anna Wintour or a Grace Coddington.

When she got to Vogue, nobody was more ready for the ‘60s than Diana Vreeland.  She just took a zeitgeist of what was happening in the streets and societies and art and culture and literature and she put it on those pages.   It was Vogue’s “People Are Talking About…” section for instance that first turned a lot of people on to The Beatles in 1964!  She really viewed fashion as so much more than the clothes…She had her finger on the pulse of what was relevant and influential in society, she marveled at the lifestyle influence that surf and skateboard brought to fashion…she knew that the strongest social influences came from the ground up…causing a swell that would reverberate in the halls of couture houses and museums…

Her boundless passion, her inimitable savvy, her rouged cheekbones and, of course, her extravagant aphorisms were all part of a legend and a legacy that even today in an age of digital media  impacts the way we look at fashion and style as an expression of our society.

She used to say: “It’s not about the dress you wear, but it’s about the life you lead in the dress.” For her, it was about the layers and the textures beneath it all.  She wanted to tell a story — even if the story was sometimes slightly skewed and not historically correct. 


A new documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, tells the story of Vreeland’s many adventures—which eventually led her to serve as fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar from 1937 to 1962 and editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1962 to 1971. The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last month as well as the Telluride Film Festival is narrated by Vreeland herself: it is strung together on a series of conversations between Vreeland and George Plimpton, which they recorded while she wrote her autobiography, D.V. Their dialogue (which is reenacted by actors) is interspersed with video of Vreeland’s interviews with Dick Cavett and Diane Sawyer. More than 40 fashion-world stars, including Manolo Blahnik, Carolina Herrera, Franca Sozzani, Diane von Furstenberg, Anjelica Huston, and Calvin Klein, are interviewed about Vreeland on camera.


In one scene, she recalls sitting outside her family home in Brewster, N.Y. and seeing Charles Lindbergh, aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, fly overhead. It’s a story that, yet again, puts her at the foreground of history…never mind the fact that Lindbergh’s route was nowhere near Brewster.  ” Do we know that Nijinsky danced through her living room?” asks the filmmaker, Lisa Immordino Vreeland who is married to Vreeland’s grandson Alexander.

“We don’t.  But it doesn’t matter, because she put us there.   She keeps history in a totally different way.” Vreeland was a self-admitted believer in “faction”—the synergy between fact and fantasy. As she put it, “You’ve got to give people what they can’t get at home. You’ve got to take them somewhere.”

One wonders what her view would have been on the phenomenon of blogging and the Internet as the dominant force of communication today.

She wasn’t an elitist;  in a sense the democratization of media through the power of the Internet would have enthralled her.  Perhaps one of the things she would have a  tough time with today is, on the other hand,  the elitism and globalization of the fashion world…

She challenged propriety when she ushered in the bikini and blue jeans—“The most beautiful things you’ve ever seen”—and created fashion spreads so elaborate and expensive, they transported American readers into worlds not their own. “She had a taste for the extraordinary and the extreme.”

“For the first time, youth went after life, instead of waiting for life to come to them,” Vreeland said about youth culture in the 1960s, which she captured in several spreads, including one called “Youth Quake.” a term she herself coined.

“Fantasy was like a pulse to her,” Vogue Fashion Director Tonne Goodman says of Vreeland in the film. “When she felt the pulse, it kept everything alive.”

“You gotta have style”,  She used to say,  It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody.




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