Claire Black on a new documentary about the legendary fashion editor.
“Pie? Who cares about pie when there’s Russia.” That’s how Anjelica Huston describes the impact of the legendary Diana Vreeland on women’s fashion magazines. The words are Vreeland’s own, quoted by Huston in a new documentary about the legendary fashion editor.
Pre-Vreeland, magazines told women how to look good for, and look after, their husbands. Post-Vreeland, everything changed. Before landing at Harper’s Bazaar in 1937, Vreeland had never worked. She had barely any formal education. She was not a conventional beauty. But she did like clothes. She was spotted dancing at the St Regis by the magazine’s then editor-in-chief, Carmel Snow. Snow admired what Vreeland was wearing (“Chanel, of course”) and that was that. What began was a career that spanned five decades and shaped how people understand fashion, not to mention the women who run the magazines that sell it. Without Vreeland there’d be no Anna Wintour.
In Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel, everyone from Lauren Hutton to Givenchy, Manolo Blahnik to Ali McGraw is interviewed. The ones who were obviously most intimidated still refer to her “Mrs Vreeland”. But the best lines are from the woman herself, delivered as a voiceover from a transcript of her conversations with George Plimpton, the writer she asked to help write her memoir, D.V., when she was 80.
On Paris before the Second World War: “It was the 30s, strangers were dancing with strangers, girls were dancing with girls. It was always raining. It was hideous. And marvellous.” Asked about someone who personifies great style: “When you see a racehorse being led out, there’s definitely something: pizazz.” On seeing Hitler at the opera in Munich before the war, “That moustache was unbelievable. It was so hilarious. It was just wrong.”
Vreeland was born in 1903 and died in 1989. She had been in Paris during the Belle Époque, New York in the Roaring 20s (Josephine Baker had “pizazz” too apparently), and London in the 1930s. Decades later she was a regular at the Factory with Warhol and his acolytes. In the 1970s she was hanging out with Jack Nicholson and Julie Christie in California.
This was a woman who had a ringside seat for almost the entire 20th century, the woman who discovered Lauren Bacall and dressed Jackie Kennedy. She was the first to celebrate Barbra Streisand’s nose by insisting the singer was photographed in profile. She was unique, not a little eccentric but also a creative visionary with a brilliant eye for photography and fashion. What she valued was originality and style; she was never hindered by conventionality.
I’m not saying I would have liked to work for her – the character of Maggie Prescott, the fearsome editor of Quality Magazine in Funny Face (1957) was based on Vreeland, and Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada would have been unimaginable without her (that whole coat-throwing thing was a Vreeland trademark), but it’s hard not to admire someone so totally iconoclastic, so self-invented, someone who says things such as “What do I think about the way most people dress? Most people are not something one thinks about.” Nice.
• Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel is at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, tomorrow until 30 September.
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