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Diana Vreeland – 1906-1989
An Authentic Force in the World of Style.

Never worry about the facts, just project an image to the public”

 Diana Vreeland was the twentieth century’s greatest arbiter of style and elegance. As fashion editor at Harpers Bazaar for twenty-five years, Editor in Chief of Vogue and creator and ambassador of fantastic exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Diana, with her passion for living, her legendary wit and charm energized the world of style and fashion for over fifty years. Not bad for a woman who had no intention of actually working for a living, ("work? What an interesting idea.")

Diana Vreeland can be described as a wellborn social butterfly that dabbled in the world of fashion, exercising her unique ability to give the fantasy starved American woman whatever it was she wanted to see. Not born into wealth, just socially well connected, Diana was groomed by her mother to be like the women who graced the covers of the fashion magazines she came to manage.  

Born in Paris, the daughter of a Scottish farmer and an American mother, she was raised in a “between the wars” European world. “My parents spent their days having a good time,” Diana has been heard to say, “They never contributed a bloody thing and they and all their friends lived the life of Riley”.

Education for Diana and her younger sister was somewhat erratic. Rather than have Diana fail at an academically minded school, her mother sent her to various ballet schools, the first being the Michael Fokine ballet school, the only school run by an Imperial Master from Russia. “I went to dancing school and I didn’t give a damn about anything else. All I’ve ever cared about since, is movement, rhythm, being in touch and discipline. What Fokine taught. And it’s stood me in good stead all my life—it’s forever. When I discovered dancing, I learned to dream.”

 Diana Vreeland did not actually begin her formal career until sometime in her mid thirties. She was wife to an unwealthy but socially accepted handsome American banker, Reed Vreeland, and mother of two sons. Her early days were spent as part of a milieu that effortlessly blended society and artist in a whirl of activity. She was a friend to Coco Chanel, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellowes and Christian Bernard.

Most of these days were spent in designer showrooms being fitted for everything from clothing to hats and gloves.

But she paid almost nothing for her designer clothes. For the French Designers, Diana had what they called jolie/laide, which means beautiful/ugly. In fact, Diana was considered by most to be very ugly, one journalist in America suggesting that her looks were reminiscent of a cigar store wooden Indian. To the world, however, it didn’t matter. Couturiers saw her as an original, a mannequin du monde. So they offered her the clothing and accessories for nothing, in exchange for her chic manner and visibility.

When Reed moved the family to New York Diana continued living the way she always had until Caramel Snow, the then editor of Harpers Bazaar magazine, approached her. Snow had the uncanny ability to sniff out virgin talent and wanted Diana as Fashion Editor suggesting that she would be paid for what she was already doing.

Diana accepted the position and soon began changing the way fashion was reported to the public. Instead of simply reporting the styles and trends of fashion, Diana began to create, to motivate and popularize, certain objects, attitudes and ideas. She did this with her legendary observations, comments, wit and humour, keeping the American public, especially women, always wanting more. “The bikini is the most important invention since the atom bomb”, was one statement. “Never fear being vulgar, just boring”, was another.

On one occasion during a fashion layout for Vogue magazine, Diana was informed that a phrase, “windbreaker” that she was using, was already copyrighted. Breathlessly she rushed into the copy room and demanded, "Quick, what's another word for breaking wind?” On another occasion she created a two-page layout of a nude female lying face down in the sand, her derriere covered in a large black straw hat. The caption read, “Spend the summer under a big black sailor.”

Diana Vreeland had the unique ability to always think “outside the box”. Even the décor of her apartment on Park Avenue was an original. Friends with Billy Baldwin, the famous New York decorator who actually worked with her on the project, Diana said that she wanted her apartment to look like a garden in Hell. Actually it did not look like a garden in hell but it was completely decorated in lacquer reds with scarlet coloured floral wall coverings, memorabilia and books. In the center of her living room was a bright red sofa piled high with an impressive collection of cushions.

In terms of her personal style, Diana loved simple elegant clothing with splashy accessories. Exotic jewelry, hats and wonderful shoes were among her favorite fashion items. “I’d like to have on the most luxurious cashmere sweater; the most luxurious satin pants, very beautiful stockings, very beautiful shoes—marvelous shoes—and whatever would be suitable around the neck.” .

Diana Vreeland was a visionary in the world of style, elegance and fashion. “People who eat white bread have no dreams.” She was known to say. “Without emotion, there is no beauty” and “What sells is hope”. The stories she told and the tales she spun were nothing less than memorable and she is still quoted today. The American public hung on to every word and on one occasion a brave journalist asked her, “Mrs. Vreeland, is that fact or fiction?” After a small pause she replied, “It’s faction”. 

Katherine Webster

Has Fashion Gotten Away From Us?

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