Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Style Maven: Diana Vreeland and the Met (Part 3)

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 Tens, Twenties,
and Thirties: Inventive
Clothes 1909-1939
Exhibition Catalog 
The Tens, Twenties, and Thirties: Inventive Clothes 1909-1939 Exhibition (1974): The exhibition was called The Tens, Twenties, and Thirties: Inventive Clothes 1909-1939. The real stars of the show were the clothes themselves, chosen by Diana not just for their beauty but for the extent to which they exemplified new ideas: the new freedoms heralded by Poiret; the simple relaxed suits of Chanel, and her embrace of male fashion for the lives of modern women; the craftsmanship and inventiveness of Vionnet, the first to cut fabric on the bias so that it moved with the female body; the wit, artistry, and surrealism of Schiaparelli; the romantic fantasies in lace of the Callot Soeurs; and the Orientalism and the colors of the Fauves and Ballet Russes. Each design represented experiments in length and line that would play themselves out over and over again throughout the twentieth century. There were pieces in the exhibition that Diana remembered well from Europe in the 1930s, lent by other collections at the urging of donors such as Mona Bismarck and Millicent Rogers. Once again Diana called for assistance from every direction, and battled to ensure that each exhibit was beautifully staged and lit. Exhibition visitors wandered through the galleries to the strains of Gershwin, Eric Satie, Stravinsky, and Duke Ellington. Chanel perfume was sprayed in the galleries twice a day. Contemporary paintings, by Guy Pène du Bois and Kees van Dongen among others, helped set the scene.

The importance of this second exhibition was that it showed the clothes that had inaugurated the line of the century, clothes of fantastic workmanship and style interpreted by someone who had worn them herself. 

This time, the reaction was unequivocal. The press called it a “dazzler,” and the designers were enthralled. Apart from remarking that it was the best costume exhibition he had ever seen, Bill Blass was convinced it would have “the most shattering effect on fashion.” 

Valentino, who was closer to French couture than most of those present, was stunned by the Vionnet dresses at close range. The show had such an impact on Issey Miyake that he arranged for it to go to Japan, believing that it would open the eyes of Japanese designers. 

This fashion revolution had liberated women, changed what they wore, how they wore, how they looked and how they felt about themselves. For centuries women had been corseted and covered with long skirts, their legs completely hidden. As Vreeland put it before this time a woman "was a confection of leg-o-bustles into which a body had been squeezed, with a head attached. The dress entered the room, not the woman."

Harold Kota and Richard Martin later wrote: "The foremost accomplishments of Halston in the mid- and late- 1970s seem so clearly predicated on his interpretative engagement with this show." The exhibition was credited with introducing a new generation of New York's designers to the possibilities of the bias cut; and it revealed Diana as a connoisseur as well as  catalyst of fashion. 

It also inspired Irving Penn to shoot a photographic essay (examples shown above): he greatly preferred photographing clothes on uncomplaining Schlappi mannequins to working with temperamental models. The exhibition and and its staging caught the imagination of the public too. 

Actress and interior designer, Elise de Wolfe, was one of Diana's idols, who was more appreciated
for her costumes than her acting in the early 1900s. Above she wears her Schiaparelli cape with Jean Cocteau's design
before she gave it to the Costume Institute.

The Balenciaga show had been a commercial success, with more than 150,000 visitors. This one broke records. Almost 400,000 people went through the galleries, vindicating Diana's perspective, her showmanship, and her taste, and ensuring that there was no further question about her position at the Met.  

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