Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Style Maven: Diana Vreeland and the Met (Part 7)

Diana Vreeland
As I said in Part 1 of this Style Maven series featuring Diana Vreeland, my quest on #IMFblog has been to examine where trends and social behavior originated as it pertains to fashion and style. I aim to find what fashion was, and what we are turning it into day by day going forward. Diana Vreeland having served as Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief at a time when fashion became a powerful tool of expression for women helped her to convey to America a concept of beauty that was aspirational and liberating for all women to follow. Diana Vreeland’s aura is still riddled in the excitement associated with the fashion industry, and the way that we think about fashion is a product of the mind of this visionary figure. That is why this month and next month I choose to delve into her work at the Costume Institute which is another arena of fashion where she brought her inimitable influence setting a standard that we still aim to achieve not just for fashion, but in the field of costume curating. I want to examine what we can learn from DV about style and fashion through her curatorial work. I figure, in light of this year’s exhibition opening, doing so will give us an eye into the difficulty of producing an exhibition, and Vreeland’s thoughts on how to create drama in presentation. In my fashion, one who has style has a recognizable character, and those who understand the character they play in life have the power to produce a life’s story that teaches others what it means to live a fulfilling life. (Photos and text come from the following books: ‘The Empress of Fashion’ by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel’ by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, and ‘Diana Vreeland’ by Eleanor Dwight)

Vanity Fair Exhibition Catalog
Vanity Fair Exhibition (1977): After the success of The Glory of Russian Costume, the acting director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, made a suggestion. Diana's flair and taste were generating huge interest. The next exhibition should be nothing less than her personal edit of the thirty thousand pieces in the Costume Institute's closets. Diana called this exhibition Vanity Fair. Its title was derived from the town of Vanity in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where pilgrims stopped on their way to Rome to indulge in "pleasures, lusts and delights." To Diana, following Thackeray as well as Bunyan, Vanity Fair also meant "society, with it foibles, its weaknesses, its splendeur." It was no coincidence, as Harold Koda and Richard Martin have pointed out, that Diana appropriated the title of a then-defunct Condé Nast magazine. The theme of the exhibition "was what she believed a magazine should be, and it exemplified the profile of her magazines." Montebello warned in the accompanying publication that anyone looking for analysis or conventional costume history would be disappointed. "Why? Because we are not presenting an anthology of the collection but a personal choice, Diana Vreeland's choice." Though capricious, her selection was anything but random: "This is not so much an exhibition of clothes as of what Diana Vreeland can show us about clothes."
     Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave Diana all the help she could. She agreed to chair the Party of the Year committee for a second year, and she wrote an appreciation of Diana for the catalog. She also paid the "high priestess" a visit in her "temple" while she was assembling the exhibition. On the morning of this visit Diana had already collected together "follies and fripperies" from all over the world: tiny shoes for bound Chinese feet, bustles, parasols with intricately wrought handles, kimonos, men's waistcoats of rich brocade, towering hair combs fashionable in Buenos Aires for just one decade between 1830 and 1840, exquisitely tailored sporting jackets belonging to the Duke of Windsor, parachute-silk jumpsuits by Norma Komali, and lingerie that would later become the talking point of the show. These objects had not been chosen for their historic interest but to show what the human mind could conjure up in the interest of allure. "These incredibly beautiful things," said Diana. "You know, you have to demand them. You must wish for the most ravishing thing of beauty and quality because it's there to be had, even now. Keep the demand high. If there is no one who demands, then what the craftsman know will disappear." Koda and Martin saw Vanity Fair as "the truest reflection of Vreeland's commitment to the opulent expression of concepts; in it she allowed herself the freedom and flamboyance to select the best and most fantastic, as in fact she had always done." But in Vanity Fair Diana went further.

Diana had by now become so practiced in producing her theatrical exhibits that she could make magic using only the treasures of the Met's own collection, which she did in her own idiosyncratic way.

Mrs. Onassis observed that the objects Diana had selected were for the most part, "from a rarefied world of court and capital whose inhabitant had had the leisure and the money to indulge their fantasies and their vanities." But Diana countered this:

"Do not be too hard on vanity," Mrs. Vreeland cautioned. Vanity has given a discipline. 'Is that all you care about, clothes?' people as me - as if I'd never had children, never had a husband." She smiled. "I happen to think that vanity is a very important sort of thing."
She recalled Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit.
"Do you remember; at the end, those three characters are standing in a room? There is glaring light, no shadow, no place to ever be away." She turned her head and placed her hand to the shade her face.
"This is forever; this is hell. And there is no mirror and you lose your face, you lose your self-image. When that is gone, that is hell. Some may think it vain to look in a mirror, but I consider it an identification of self. 

More than half a million people went to Vanity Fair; which ran from 1977 to 1978. Diana's fame grew; and she was beside herself with delight when media magnate Jocelyn Stevens asked is he could name a racehorse after her. There were other honors, but the one that pleased her most was the Legion d'Honneur, awarded after The Tens, Twenties, and Thirties: Inventive Clothes 1909-1939. "We all have our dreams. We all want one thing. That little red ribbon...but to me, it was France, where I was born and brought up...The night I got it, it was enfin, enfin, enfin - that night could have been the end of my life because it was all I ever wanted."

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