Prior to watching the documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, directed by her granddaugher-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, I had re-read Diana Vreeland's autobiography DV and re-flicked through the coffee table book of the same title (also compiled by Lisa Immordino) as well as Vreeland's authored picture-based volume on the quality of Allure. The documentary visually brings to life the three of those books combined but it's only reading all three in addition to the film that you get the full picture.
The DVD for Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is coming out in the UK tomorrow, having had a short cinema run and will no doubt making it into a lot of stockings come Christmas but as I already had the three books at my disposal, it made watching the film a little like going over a summary of events in a quickened pace. I'm going to be one of those annoying pedantic folk who says "The book is better". That said, for people such as my boyfriend who knew nothing about Diana Vreeland, the film was an enthralling peek into a world of a woman who had vision by the bucketload. It's loosely chronological and takes us from the beginning of Vreeland's enchanted life as a girl who had people like Diaghilev and other luminaries waltzing in to her life. As a young society wife, she was dressed by Coco Chanel and flitted between London, New York and Paris soaking up the twenties with gusto.
Her calling came when Carmel Snow, then editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar noticed Vreeland for her style and made her a contributor in 1937 with the noted "Why Don't You…?" column. Vreeland of course then became fashion editor and after a tenure of over twenty years, she then jumped ship to Conde Nast and was editor-in-chief there from 1963 until 1971. Her final years as consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art until her death rounded off a career where she had orchestrated the transformation of fashion publications into things that made people like you and me dream and visible gasp. She created the role of style visionnaire, muse and talent nurturer (David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Penelope Tree and Lauren Bacall are just a few of the names that she bought to the forefront).
That's the short summary of the documentary with plenty of supporting talking heads from the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Angelica Huston and Vreeland's two sons Tim and Frederick. The film also brings to life some of the cinematic influences that Vreeland had inspired, in characters like Maggie Prescott (played by Kay Thompson) in 1957's Funny Face or the hilariously ridiculous Miss Maxwell (played by Grayson Hall) in William Klein's Qui êtes vous, Polly Maggoo?
As good a job as the film did in summarising Vreeland's life, I still think that the best way of immersing oneself in all things DV is through her championed medium of print - through the many images of the magazines and shoots she styled, through the long essays in The Eye Has to Travel (the book), through the collation of imagery that inspired her in Allure and also through her own exaggerated way of speech in her autobiography. You'll never get the full picture of what Vreeland achieved and experienced in her illustrious life but you'll get pretty damn close.
There are images in Bazaar during the Vreeland years that are still supremely startling. The covers for a start didn't necessarily have a smiling white-teethed face staring back at you. It could be a woman's back, a striped dress or the wink of an eye. Vreeland's radical ideas coupled with Snow's shrewd editing and Alexey Brodovitch's art direction formed a powerful trio. In particular, Brodovitch's effective use of white space make the busy editorials of today look crowded and over thought. The imagery from Vreeland's era of Bazaar editing, don't make you feel like you're looking at clothes that are well over fifty years old. You're not just retrogazing at golden eras of haute couture but also looking at portrayed attitudes that feel just as relevant today. She even manages to take the stiffened sheen off a family as perfect as the Kennedy's in an iconic shoot for Bazaar when they were newly installed in the White House.
Then when she moved over to Vogue as editor-in-chief working with Alexander Liberman, she had the explosive decade of the sixties on her side. She was quick off the bat in observing that "Society is démodé. Today, only personality counts" early in her career at Vogue and so she went out of her way to eke beauty and dynamism out of what seemed like unlikely sources - from the models of the flower generation like Twiggy and Penelope Tree, from exotic locations that have come to inform the Vogues of present day, from talent like The Rolling Stones and Rudolph Nureyev and even from the world of nature such as flowers photographed by Irving Penn or white horses galloping through the snow that would never get page spaces in today's advertising-bound publications. That was most likely her ultimate downfall. The conclusion in the documentary is brushed over but the truth was that Vreeland's Vogues were costly and that Conde Nast wanted a very different magazine by 1971, aimed at the "real" working woman. This obsessive search for the "real" hasn't ceased. Aren't we jumping from one "real" bandwagon to another still? The Bridget Jones types of the early noughties. The bigger woman in a Dove ad campaign. The woman photographed naturally on the street. The older women featured in ad campaigns. The Girls characters penned by Lena Dunham.
It's hard to decide whether we have truly advanced in fashion publishing from Vreeland's time because of this acknowledgement of the "real". Judith Thurman's essay in The Eye Has to Travel nails the dichotomy in Vreeland's work between escapist and fantastical vision and then the lack of regard for what's actually going on in society made for often garish viewing. It's very easy to romanticise Vreeland's work into an oblivion of rose-tinted nostalgia because the images are so extraordinary and inconceivable to the modern eye. We may miss the presence of this ultra directional imagery that paved the way for editorial to come but it's good to have the foresight to see that fashion publishing and particularly Vogue today straddles between observing what's "real", "preserving the fantasy of fashion as well as maintaining its position as primary tastemaker and pleasing the ad dollar buck that keeps people employed. It's an equation that perhaps Vreeland never fully understood but we're grateful that she didn't.