Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Style Maven: Diana Vreeland and the Met (Part 9)

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)

The 18th Century Women
Exhibition Catalog
The Eighteenth-Century Women Exhibition (1981): The Mannequin head is not only the most visible part of the clothed mannequin, but also gives the curator a chance to style a silhouette, often an important unifying element of the exhibition. Vreeland used this opportunity to great effect. It was not about making the mannequin look like a historical figure (with wigs and painted make-up). It was instead about bringing the historic silhouette into the present—desirable to contemporary eyes. Painting minimalist hairlines in strong and importantly unnatural colors was one way of abstracting the mannequins’ heads—blurring the becomingly behind gauze was another. Wigs were used not used from hair, but instead curled pieces of paper. Once again giving the idea of a style in a modern way or she altered their proportions harnessing the wig as a quasi-prop. As in the case of the famous “Eighteenth Century Wig” created by then intern Harold Koda, recalls Vreeland’s directive. “You know the Eighteen Century is all about proportion. It’s the heel of the show to the ankle. It’s the wrist to the angle of the sleeve. It’s all about proportion. Now I need a wig and want it to be hard as concrete.” 
Jeff Daily, Chief Designer, recalls working for Vreeland on a vast Trompe L’oeil Chandelier. “When it was done, it looked like this huge, crystal chandelier was hanging there but there was nothing above it, so it was just something you saw from a distance and you could see the portrait from behind it, and everything else, so it worked.”
Left: Harold Koda redid this fantastic headdress (left) for the “Eighteenth-Century Women” exhibit several times until it suited Diana, who looked at the finished version with glee and pronounced, Mmmm, now she’s ready for the guillotine!” Right: If you look closely at the wing in this photo, you can see that it was made of curled pieces of paper rather than a wig.

La Belle Epoque
Exhibition Catalog
La Belle Époque Exhibition (1982): 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 the Czars.” She like 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. Both The Eighteenth Century Women (1981-82) and La Belle Époque (1982-83) brought in well over 500,000 people. In the fall of 1982, Diana began to work with George Plimpton on her memoir. She herself came up with the title, DV—the initials that she scrawled in green ink at the bottom of each page of magazine copy in her days as editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and later on the bottom of pages of exhibition details at the Costume Institute. D.V. became the version of Diana's life that persisted unchecked until Eleanor Dwight's 2002 biography, though Diana kept telling Plimpton that she was "terrible on facts"and that someone needed to check all the dates and times.

Plimpton later said that he really did not care whether any of it was true: the interesting thing was the way Mrs. Vreeland told it. And when it came the way Mrs. Vreeland told it, boring facts were not the point. "Did I tell you that Lindbergh flew over Brewster? It could have been someone else, but who cares--Fake it!" she said, "..There's only one thing in life, and that's the continual renewal of inspiration."

Cathleen McGuigan of Newsweek put it well when she said, “Don’t think of DV…as a book; it’s more like a lunch. A bit of soufflé, a glass of champagne, some green grapes—light, bubbly and slightly tart—all served up by an eccentric but inventive hostess.”

Yves Saint Laurent
Exhibition Catalog
Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years if Design (1983): Diana’s 1983 exhibition, Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design raised other eyebrows. This was the first time a living designer had been honored by the museum, and many people felt that this was nothing more than an elaborate public relations stunt that gave Saint Laurent an unfair competitive advantage, a feeling underscored by Diana’s rejection of chronology and anything close to a conventional retrospective. What she wanted to show in the exhibition was the inspired work of “the leader in all fashion today,” who had followed Chanel in understanding the new century and its changing way of life, and showed it how to dress. “This is an important point,” she wrote. “Both Chanel and Saint Laurent are equalizers. You and I could wear the same clothes; what we have on, anyone could wear.” To prepare, Diana went to Paris to see the Saint Laurent archives with her assistant Stephen Jamail. She examined the clothes from the different periods of Saint Laurent's career, which confirmed her notion that, in the words of Pierre Berge, M. Saint Laurent was a "genius in the are of fashions."

The Yves Saint Laurent show was unique because it honored a living couturier, one whom Diana had always admired. The brilliant designer from North Africa was first hired by Dior when he was only eighteen. Once he opened his own house in Paris, every collection he created was seen as dazzling.

At the Met she worked in the usual indirect way. She told Katell, "You know darling, Saint Laurent dresses the maids of France."Katell still wondered what she meant by the "maids of France." Finally Diana gave a hint: She's at the Louvre," and Katell guessed, "Joan of Arc! But what's Joan of Arc got to do with Saint Laurent,?" Because Saint Laurent put women in trousers. "Diana could not say, 'I think the woman who dresses as a modern woman in trousers embodies the idea of the free woman like Joan of Arc did.' It's a stretch, but it's an idea, and it's true that Joan of Arc in her trial was accused of being a sorcerer and a heretic because she wore men's attire. But Diana wasn't able to say that. She was able to say 'Go and find me the maid of France.' She was so visual that she could not tell you all her points because the verbal point has dissapeared. Only the image remans."

He was known as the “great adapter,” equally inspired by artists, writers and political movements. He put women into pants and used images from the street to inspire his designs.
The fact that Saint Laurent was alive presented problems for the exhibition designers. It meant that the show had to please him—when he came to New York, he objected to a fountain in the galleries, which was changed—and it had to withstand criticism for being an advertisement for the couture house. For the most part, however, it went off very well, because Saint Laurent realized what a privilege it was to be so honored and that everyone respected his genius.

Despite Diana’s great respect for her friend, it was ultimately her show. Now almost eighty, Diana spent weeks in Paris examining sketches and dresses with Yves and Pierre Berge. Berge remembered how she said, “’Pierre, it’s my exhibition, not yours. I mean, if you or Yves don’t like something, you tell me. If you’re right, I’m going to change it. If not, I will decide myself. It’s my exhibition.” I said, ‘Okay!’ And she was right.”

The exhibition displayed his great achievement. In true Vreeland style the clothes were not exhibited chronologically. The first room, which “vibrated with the same red beauty and intensity as the clothes,” housed his most famous creations. Another room showed his Matisse and Mondrian designs displayed flat on the walls. The third room showed just black clothes in all kinds of fabrics and designs. These was a green room with garden lattices, the “Chesnut Bois,” which showed his “day” clothes; and another room presenting dazzling embroidered and decorated jackets and, in the center, and circle of mannequins wearing clothes inspired by his African themes. There were 243 garments in all.

After 1984, she came to the museum less and less. Although she was still the special “consultant” by title, she depended on her staff to take over her many responsibilities…Several later shows (exhibition catalogs above), “Man and the Horse,” “Costumes of Royal India” and “Dance,” contained her ideas, but were organized when she was not well enough to come to the museum…On the basis of an unfair competitive advantage, many people’s unease towards the prominence given to Ralph Lauren’s sponsorship of the exhibition Man and Horse was comparable to the feelings felt for the Yves St. Laurent show…From 1985 Diana worked more from home and did everything more slowly. She continued to act as the public front of the exhibitions for the press, made contacts and opened doors, but Jamail, Le Bourhis, and Druesedow coordinated much of the installation while Diana animated and directed in the background…The ideas she floated for The Costumes of Royal India included using Andy Warhol’s elephant; talking to the British designer Zandra Rhodes, who had just come back from India; designing one of the backdrops as a page from an Indian miniature; and installing a water garden at the entrance: “Water, flowers, moonlight, to reflect moonlight would be wonderful…and good for the costumes.”…Diana was able to preside over one more exhibition, almost entirely from home. It was called Dance, and its theme was party clothes from the eighteenth century through to the sixties, the Twist, and the Peppermint Lounge...She managed a few more short press interviews, including one with Andre Leon Talley for British Vogue in December 1986: “Great dance dresses have a spirit of their own,” she told him. “They project allure into the wearer and into the evening. To dance is to experience a vitality and a lust for life that exists in each of us.”…Then Diana withdrew. It was a conscious decision. She finally called a halt to the grand performance, an end to being seen by others. Diana Vreeland died on August 2, 1989.

No comments:

Post a Comment