Sunday, June 23, 2013

Style Maven: Diana Vreeland and the Met (Part 8)

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)

Diaghilev Exhibition Catalog
Diaghilev (1978): As she became more famous, criticism of Diana’s exhibitions became more vocal. As Koda and Martin wrote later, Diana’s version of history was history of “the grandest memory, a sweep through the elegances of the court of Versailles, a promenade through the grand silhouettes and extravagant textures of the Belle Époque, and the colorful Russia of Czars.” She liked to express the mood of an era through oblique, impressionistic details: a bouquet of violets on a winter sleigh stood for czarist indulgence (a Russian grand duke once paved an avenue in St. Petersburg with violets to welcome his Italian mistress); Alice in Wonderland, holding a flamingo, implied the topsy-turvy world of the Belle Époque. This approach to the past was extremely popular with the public; and Diana’s early exhibitions were so innovative, and their atmospheric lighting, music, perfumes, and backdrops so dazzling, that objections were muted. Three of Diana’s first five exhibitions – The World of Balenciaga; The Ten, Twenties, and Thirties; and Vanity Fair—all played directly to her connoisseurship. But after Vanity Fair the chorus of complaints grew louder.

Criticism by Nesta Macdonald in Dance Magazine of the Diaghilev exhibition that followed was typical of much to come. “Diaghilev created theatrical magic—illusion. Vogue created fashion magic—delusion. At the Metropolitan, the exhibits come from one side and the presentation from the other…the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum seemed to me to resemble a battlefield.” Macdonald believed that mixing up the costumes from different ballets and failing to offer any kind of chronology or context made Diaghilev’s impact difficult to understand; and she was infuriated by errors in an accompanying brochure that was too sketchy. Diana Vreeland, she wrote, revolutionized fashion magazines with an instinctive and exhausting perfectionism: “The sad this is that she seems to have thought that the showy nature of Diaghilev costumes could stand up to window-dressing technique.”

The Fashions of the
Hapsburg Era
The Fashions of the Hapsburg Era: Austria-Hungry (1979): In the spring of 1979, Vreeland went to Vienna and Budapest for the research on "The Fashions of the Hapsburg Era; Austria-Hungary" exhibition. She wrote to Susan Train, "I am back since a few weeks from a trip to Vienna and Budapest, trying to straighten out clothes from behind the Iron Curtain. Russia was a cinch compared with that poor oppressed country Hungary!"

Some critics found Fashions at the Hapsburg Empire just as obscure. This was perhaps not surprising, since Diana explained to George Trow that what she liked best about the Hapsburgs was the gleaming brass turnout of their horses, a point of view only comprehensible to those who knew her very well indeed. “What Mrs. Vreeland likes is a source of simple energy so powerful that something rather excessive can be elaborated from what rises to the surface,” wrote Trow, manfully doing his best. “ ‘It’s important to get to the point,’ she said. ‘The point it the gleam. It’s what the nineteenth century knew. The gleam, the positiveness, the turnout.’” 

Uniforms of Austrian officers.

One of her many helpers, Bob Lavine, a costume designer for stage and screen who had worked on the Hollywood show, had gone to Vienna before her. His treasure hunt for possible exhibit items was as exciting as any exotic Vreeland photo shoot in past magazine days. He reported: “I have found some marvelous things here.” The kind and enthusiastic museum directors promised him robes of the Hapsburg court, satin and velvet gowns with eight-foot trains covered in gold, silver and jeweled embroidery, court uniforms and livery plus fans, gloves, exquisite shoes and a gold toilet service—“I think they would send the cathedral if we asked.” Other possible items were two magnificent “robes de style” handpainted with “Jugenstril” roses and morning glories by Gustav Klimt, and the museums would be willing to loan the Klimt paintings, which had never been out of Austria.

Left: A Hapsburg headpiece. Right: Austrian cream satin wedding dress for the Hapsburg show.

Research for “The Fashions of the Hapsburg Empire” in 1979-80 began three years earlier in 1976. “It was ,” said Bramson, “a great editing process, a sifting.” Bramson had the greatest respect for Diana’s creativity. “The ideas poured out of her,” she remembered.
“The Fashions of the Hapsburg Era: Austria-Hungary” opened to the public on December 11, 1979. It presented the mix of Western and oriental fashion influences on Austria and Hungary. The exhibit was elegant and opulent, and included military regalia of the time as well as extremely feminine women’s attire.

The Manchu Dragon
Exhibition Catalog
The Manchu Dragon (1980): In 1986 this line of criticism reached a fresh pitch in a book by Febora Silverman called "Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland and the New Aristocracy of Taste in a Reagan’s America". In her book Silverman made the arresting assertion that Diana’s exhibitions from "The Manchu Dragon" onward consciously and deliberately propagated the values of the Regan era. In Silverman’s view, Diana’s show reflected the Reaganite love of conspicuous consumption, rejection of so-called dependency culture, and a devil-take-the-hindmost attitude...In New York, argued Silverman, politics, commerce, and culture had converged on the Metropolitan Museum so that it was dominated by a clique of designer tycoons, retail millionaires, and grandees. The museum had allowed itself to be colonized by their values for its own ends and had become grossly commercial. Silverman objected to the manner in which Bloomingdale’s was allowed to cash in on The Manchu Dragon by producing replicas of Chinese art…

Deborah Silverman greatly overstated Diana’s influence. As the gossip columnist Liz Smith put it in the New York Daily News, “her vision of Diana Vreeland as a kind of evil capitalist dues ex machine presiding over some imaginary link between New York society and the White House occupants [was] absurd.” Jean Druesedow, associate curator at the Costume Institute from 1984, commented that Silverman underestimated the degree of spontaneity and improvisation. Had she consulted anyone at the Costume Institute, she would have discovered that The Manchu Dragon was semi-imported and put together at very short notice when another exhibition collapsed, one reason why its presentation and its relationship with Bloomingdale’s was not as rigorous as it might have been.

Moreover, Silverman made no attempt to look at Diana’s exhibitions in the context of the history of the Costume Institute. She thought it was suspicious that the shows influenced designers, failing to understand that this had always been part of its mandate. Had Silverman spoken to Thomas Hoving, she might have understood that he had hired Diana to deliver crowd-pleasing blockbusters, and she might have realized that many of the “vices” for which she was castigating Diana were more appropriately attributable to him. In spite of its weaknesses, however, Silverman’s book did light on some the problems with Diana’s approach to exhibiting costume. Her exhibitions were best when their themes allowed her to convey a sense of the Girl—and even the Boy—behind the clothes, and the dreams behind the designs. She was much less secure when dealing with other important issues that also affected the wearing of clothes, such as caste, military rank, religious symbolism, and the display of power, a weakness that showed in "The Manchu Dragon".

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