"Never fear being vulgar, just boring"

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She was the visionary taste-maker who dictated the fashion agenda for over 50 years. Stylist celebrates the icon whose influence will never go out of style

Words: Anna Hart, Photos: Rex Features

Looking back at her four decades in fashion journalism, Diana Vreeland once remarked, "If I hadn't done what I did, I'd have done nothing." This wasn't merely a declaration of steely determination and consummate passion (although clearly she possessed both). As a wealthy, well-connected wife in New York high society, Diana didn't need to show up at the magazine offices of Harper's Bazaar then Vogue every morning for 34 years. As Mrs Reed Vreeland, she could have lived a comfortable existence as a wife and a mother. Instead, she went to work and became Diana Vreeland, legendary fashion editor and, later, consultant to the costume department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But, as is brilliantly portrayed in a new documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, Diana always gave the impression she’d have done it all for free. That’s when you know you’re in the job you were made for.

Diana Dalziel was born in 1903 in Paris – she once crisply informed George Plimpton, the editor of her autobiography, “The first thing to do, my love, is to arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows quite naturally.” In the resulting book, D.V., she paints her parents as “racy, pleasure-loving, gala, good-looking Parisians who were part of the whole transition between the Edwardian era and the modern world.” Her stockbroker father was a Londoner of Scottish descent, described as affectionate, stoic and devoted to her mother, the beautiful and reckless American socialite Emily Key Hoffman.

While Diana professed to have “no formal education”, her well-connected parents moved in aristocratic and bohemian circles and the young Diana was introduced to a carousel of famous faces; the legendary Russian art critic (and founder of the Ballets Russes) Sergei Diaghilev and virtuoso dancer Vaslav Nijinksy were often guests of the Dalziels. At the age of seven, she and younger sister Alexandra attended the coronation of George V at Westminster Abbey. “We saw kings like you see cigarettes around the house,” Diana declared.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when Diana was 11, the Dalziel family moved to New York, but Diana always credited her Parisian upbringing for her early appreciation of fashion. “You aren’t born in Paris to forget about fashion for one second,” she insisted. But despite a childhood of wealth and privilege, Diana’s was far from happy. From an early age, she was painfully aware that she was a plain child in a family of beauties. “I was the most hideous thing in the world,” she said in a 1977 interview. “If I thought of myself, I wanted to kill myself.” In her autobiography, Diana recalls “the most terrible scene” between herself and her mother: “One day she said to me, ‘It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her. This, of course, is why you are so impossible to deal with.’ I simply walked out of the room. I never bothered to explain that I loved my sister and was more proud of her than anything in the world, that I absolutely adored her… Parents, you know, can be terrible.”

Above: Diana Vreeland with Steve Rubell at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub in New York

Like many of the world’s interesting people, Diana had a complicated relationship with her mother, described variously as vain, needy, lonely and bored. “She’d even flirt with my boyfriends, and occasionally one would fall flat for her,” Diana writes in D.V. “She was quite young and beautiful and amusing and mondaine and splashy, all of which I’m glad I had in my background – now. But I’ve had to live a long time to come to that conclusion.”

Taste and vision

For Diana’s granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel and wrote the book on which the documentary is based, it was Diana’s sense that “my mother was never proud of me” which nudged her towards self-reinvention. “At a very young age, Diana realised that only her taste and vision could set her apart,” says Immordino Vreeland. It’s true that her teenage diaries chart her efforts to improve herself: “For years I am and always have been looking out for girls to idealise because they are things to look up to, because they are perfect,” a 15-year-old Diana scribbled, resolving, “I shall be that girl.” As an Upper East Side debutante, she hurled herself into society. She found that unconventional dresses and flamboyant make-up diverted attention from her imperfect features, and she felt more at home dancing in Harlem than promenading in Central Park. “At 16 she started with the over-the-top make-up,” recalled Warhol estate executor Fred Hughes, a long-standing friend of Diana’s. “She would giggle with me about how she painted herself white and then got the white paint all over Stanley Mortimer’s dinner jacket when they went out dancing.”

On 4 July 1923, at a weekend party in Saratoga, California, the 18-year-old Diana met the man she was going to marry and remain in love with until his death: Thomas Reed Vreeland, a Yale graduate from upstate New York. “She was so smitten,” records her biographer Eleanor Dwight, “that when he asked her to play golf, she jumped at the chance, although she barely knew how to play. She showed up at the first tee with a bandaged arm and announced that she could only walk around the course with him.”

“I never felt comfortable about my looks until I married Reed Vreeland,” Diana once wrote. “He was the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. He was very quiet, very elegant. I thought it was so beautiful to just watch him.” While Diana is best known as a society wit, an uncompromising arbiter of style and substance, and a pithy chronicler of people and places, she remained fiercely private on the subject of her marriage to Reed. “I believe in love at first sight because that’s what it was,” she writes. “Isn’t it curious that even after more than 40 years of marriage, I was always slightly shy of him? I can remember his coming home in the evening – the way the door would close and the sound of his step… If I was in my bath or in my bedroom, I can remember always pulling myself up, thinking, ‘I must be at my very best.’ There was never a time when I didn’t have that reaction – ever.”

The London years

After nine months of courtship, Diana Dalziel married Thomas Reed Vreeland on 1 March 1924, at the St Thomas Episcopalian church on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The church was empty – guests shunned the wedding because Diana’s mother had just been named in a widely publicised adultery scandal. “Nothing could have spoiled my happiness. I just wanted to marry Reed Vreeland,” insists Diana in D.V., but after the ceremony, she never saw her mother again.

Above: Diana Vreeland with Yves Saint Laurent at a Paris soiree in 1982

Despite this inauspicious start, the marriage flourished, with the couple moving to Albany in upstate New York while Reed trained to be a banker, living a wholly domestic life with a house and a newborn baby. In 1929, they moved to London, slipping effortlessly into high society, keeping 11 servants, and touring Europe in a black, custom-made Bugatti. “We were tiny people compared to what our friends had,” Diana protested, and it’s true that in her drawing room she entertained friends such as the novelist Evelyn Waugh, the stage set designer Christian Bérard, portrait photographer and designer Cecil Beaton, performer Noel Coward and composer Cole Porter. Joining the ranks of Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe, other society ladies who ran their own boutiques, Diana opened a lingerie business near Berkeley Square, and struck up a friendship with one customer in particular: the infamous Wallis Simpson (the woman who King Edward VIII would abdicate for in 1936).

According to Diana, Simpson “wasn’t very well-dressed” and “ordered three nightgowns” when she first visited the shop. Business and pleasure took Diana to Paris regularly (“The best thing about London is Paris,” she was fond of saying) where she bought most of her clothes from Coco Chanel, who she counted as a friend. “I learned everything from Chanel, as far as the way I like clothes,” she said.

After eight years, Reed’s job took them back to New York, where the Vreelands quickly became a fixture on the Manhattan social scene. Within six months, Diana’s impeccable style and dancing ability had won her a string of admirers – including Carmel Snow, the brilliant, hard-drinking Irish editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who offered her a job as a fashion columnist. As Ingeborg Day wrote in The New Yorker, “In her mid-30s, with a wealthy husband, two sons and no formal education, Diana Vreeland went to work. She could claim only one marketable skill: from two decades of talking to and buying from couturiers, she knew clothes.”

Diana stood out from the start, penning “an advice column which mixed fashion and snob appeal – exactly what her readers wanted,” as Day puts it. Diana’s “Why Don’t You...” column ran for years, and was quoted (and parodied) more than any other fashion column. “Why Don’t You… Paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys’ nursery so they won’t grow up with a provincial point of view?” she suggested. “Why Don’t You… Own, as does one extremely smart woman, 12 diamond roses of all sizes?”

Pioneering spirit

It took little more than a year for Diana to progress from eccentric columnist to fashion editor, a role she rapidly reinvented: choosing the clothes for the magazine, overseeing photography, selecting models, and working closely with both Snow and the visionary art director Alexey Brodovitch. Between the three of them, Snow, Brodovitch, and Diana turned Harper’s Bazaar into the most admired and influential style magazine of the last century, launching and advancing the careers of a string of 20th-century icons: Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and the critic Kenneth Tynan, to name just a few. In March 1943, she put the unknown model Betty Bacall (later to become Lauren, and after that, Mrs Humphrey Bogart) on the front cover. The wife of filmmaker Howard Hawks spotted Bacall on the cover and persuaded her husband to screentest Bacall for her breakthrough film, To Have And Have Not. In Bacall’s autobiography, By Myself, she recalls that Diana “stood up, shook my hand, looked at my face – with her hand under my chin turned it to the right and to the left… I was scared to death… I hadn’t a clue what her reaction to me had been.”

During the early Sixties, Diana was passed over for the job of editor-in-chief after Snow retired. Feeling both snubbed and underpaid, Diana accepted Condé Nast’s offer to become Vogue’s editor-in-chief. Unfettered at last, Diana’s outlandish imagination was in perfect accord with the hedonism of the decade – her favourite after the Twenties, she was fond of saying.

Under Diana, Vogue became a bible for anyone curious about culture, art, social happenings and vibrant fashion. Vogue celebrated pop culture, the civil rights movement, the pill, rock music and the Warhol factory. Photographer David Bailey testifies that she was the first editor to publish a picture of a then little-known Mick Jagger in the fashion pages.

Vogue became so much more than a style magazine, featuring not only models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, but opera singer Maria Callas, Catherine Deneuve, Sonny & Cher and The Beatles. She was instrumental in demonstrating how fashion interacts with culture and politics. However, while Diana demanded that fashion be taken seriously, she never lost her sense of humour, or took herself too seriously. (In her autobiography, she gleefully recounts the rumour that Coco Chanel once said, “I was the most pretentious woman she’d ever met.”) And she was no sneering fashion maven; for her, style was a whole lot more than an expensive dress. “You gotta have style,” she said. “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. I’m not talking about lots of clothes.”

ABOVE: Diana Vreeland in 1982

Central to her ground-breaking approach was her firm rejection of the pervasive publishing mantra of the time, which held that readers needed material they could “relate” to. For Diana, magazines were about aspiration, transportation and escapism, not the reality of readers’ lives. “I think part of my success as an editor came from never worrying about a fact, a cause, an atmosphere. It was me – projecting to the public,” she states in D.V. “That was my job. I think I always had a perfectly clear view of what was possible for the public. Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted.” Diana was similarly forceful with designers. “She just had these magic hands,” said Lillian Groueff, who modelled for Diana. “She’d pull the shoulder pads out of suits, change the hemlines. She could always feel the change before the designers. I think they got ideas from her.”

In 1977, Rolling Stone asked the author Truman Capote why he believed Diana would be remembered. He replied, “She has contributed more than anyone I can think of to the level of taste of American women, in the sense of the way they move, what they wear, and how they think. She’s a genius, but the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognise.” Reed Vreeland died of cancer in 1967, after years of ill health. Diana mourned her beloved husband deeply but privately – and then immersed herself more than ever into her social and professional life. “By this stage, Diana was a celebrity in her own right,” says Immordino Vreeland. However, her financial extravagance was proving unmanageable for Condé Nast. In 1971, aged 68, she was replaced as editor-in-chief by her long-time assistant, Grace Mirabella. The news rocked the fashion world, but nobody seriously expected Diana to settle into a comfortable retirement.

One year later, she was invited by The Metropolitan Museum of Art to be a special consultant of the Costume Institute. As Ingeborg Day puts it, “She took over a dusty, forgotten corner that hardly anyone visited, and put on three large shows in less than three years, setting attendance records (in 1974, 270,000 flocked to Romantic And Glamorous Hollywood Design during its first two months alone).”

As if her entire life had been in preparation for this climactic job, everything that Diana adored – history, art, fashion, high society, travel, literature, music – converged in it. While Diana had her critics, primarily objecting to the “commercialisation” of the Met, her 17-year tenure (during which she oversaw 15 blockbuster exhibitions) was widely regarded as her most influential and successful role yet. Writing in the The New Yorker, critic George WS Trow declared, “The message of her shows at the Met (which, it seems to me, have had more influence on the attitude of New Yorkers towards fashion than the last 36 issues of any magazine) appears to be ‘It’s Good! It’s Better! It’s Best! It’s a million miles away! But it’s all yours! Come and get it!’”

Diana died of a heart attack on 22 August 1989, aged 86. Hundreds of friends, protégés, old adversaries and new disciples attended a memorial service at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate the doyenne’s six-decade career in fashion. The photographer Richard Avedon, who worked with Diana for 40 years, spoke movingly about her: “I am here as witness. Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline, and created an entirely new profession. Diana invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies.” Diana Vreeland came, she wore and she conquered fashion. It has never been the same since.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel is at selected cinemas from 21 September and on DVD from 29 October. The book with the same title by Lisa Immordino Vreeland is out now


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