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)
There was a private family funeral followed by a memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 6, 1989…The obituarists’ memories tended to be short: Diana’s great wartime fashion success, notably the Popover and her support of Claire McCardell, received barely a mention. Neither did her predilection for low heels, flat footwear, bare legs, and her introduction of Capri sandals. Dazzled by her persona, by a view of her as the great 1960s editor of psychedelia and flower power, those summing up her achievements in fashion overlooked her ceaseless, and sometimes unpopular, efforts to bring pizzazz to American fashion from the 1930s onward; her support for the craftsmen and –women of the fashion industry; and her conviction that “the eye must travel.” They also overlooked her steady championing of clothes that reflected the new silhouette, the new line of the twentieth century; clothes that liberated the natural female body, whether they came from Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Claire McCardell, the Ballets Russes, the dance studio, or the office messenger.
“Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted,”
and “The most boring thing on earth
is to be of the world of what you do.”
More subtle commentators rightly saw Diana as an extraordinary catalyst, as the Diaghilev of fashion…More recently Diana’s exhibitions, and the controversies that came to surround them, have been reevaluated. As John Ross of the Metropolitan Museum of Art remarked when she died, “Mrs. Vreeland was a genius for understanding…that society expressed itself visually, whether it was through fashion, whether it was through photography, whether it was through the way that people lived.” By introducing the idea that society expressed itself visually in a way that cut across dichotomies like young/old, working-class/aristocrat, feminist/non-feminist, and by placing this insight at the heart of costume display, Diana mounted a series of exhibitions that were undoubtedly radical…Her exhibitions always attempted to reflect the woman, the man, the style of life, the dreams behind the clothes. Even though Diana herself might have been uneasy about it, the exhibitions thus staked a claim for fashion as art: the art of the dressed body.
The exhibitions coincided with, and made a contribution to, the emergence in the early 1980s of the idea that the dressed body was a cultural phenomenon in its own right, to be studied by academics and argued over by cultural theorists, a result that would have astonished—and quite possibly appalled—Diana. The work of this new generation of fashion historians and fashion theorists allows us to see Diana in a different way: as a fascinating exemplar of a small group of women who wielded great power in the fashion industry as designers, photographers, journalists, and businesswomen from before the First World War. They were breadwinners, wives, and mothers, too, but they derived their social and economic power from a pre-feminist view of female identity. ..Contemporary theorists are also reexamining the idea that inspired Diana and so many of her contemporaries: of beauty and allure as empowering in themselves. They point out that it is an extremely powerful idea; that it is rooted in sexual attraction; that it has never gone away; and that it continues to jostle for space with more contemporary views of female identity. Moreover, it often jostles along with competing ideas of female identity in the same woman.
One reason for this, perhaps, is that Diana’s greatest achievement is barely visible to the naked eye. It lies out of sight, in memory and dreams. “I don’t like to work,” she once said. “I only like to dream and achieve…quite a different matter.” …The rational mind was, she thought, too often prosaic, too often circumscribed by hesitation and fear…To Diana the imagination liberated the possible: with a little imagination something ever more “wonderful” was just around the corner and ever present in the here and now…What she did, indefatigably, and from a position of great influence at Vogue, was to assert the authority of the imagination—and the idea of possibility that galloped along beside it.