Why would anyone make a documentary about a fashion editor who’s been dead for almost a quarter of a century? Well, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who co-directed “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” with Bent-Jorgen Permutt and Frederic Tcheng, likely had two reasons.
She’s married to one of Vreeland’s grandsons. More important, the woman was one of the fabulous personages of the 20th century. As the actress and model Lauren Hutton says in the film, “She was upside-down original.” Starpower like Vreeland’s shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste.
The documentary opens Friday at the Kendall.
Vreeland worked at Harper’s Bazaar for 25 years, most notably as fashion editor. She was editor in chief at Vogue from 1962-71, then from 1972 until her death, in 1989, she was special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. She single-handedly made it into the cultural powerhouse it remains today.
Vreeland was the anti-Anna Wintour. The current Vogue editor is an inscrutable beauty, aloof and opaque behind her trademark sunglasses. Hers is a mystique born of elusiveness. Vreeland was all exaggerated, eccentric surface — an open book, and what a book.
Vreeland possessed superlative verbal gifts (see accompanying story, N10). She spoke in italics and exclamation marks as naturally — as vocationally — as priests once said the Mass in Latin. (The religious analogy isn’t so farfetched. Vreeland liked to note that her initials, “D.V.,” which she used for the title of her memoirs, also stood for “Deo volente,” by the grace of God.)
Vreeland further differed from Wintour in not exactly being a classic beauty. With her beaky nose, prominent forehead, and elongated face, she was like a great auk that had somehow acquired tropical plumage. But she knew how to cultivate a style and then what to do with it. Snoods, turbans, cigarette holders: This was one woman who knew how to accessorize. And Vreeland was nothing if not self-aware. “Diana took out her compact and brushed on an inch of rouge,” Andy Warhol noted in a 1978 diary entry. “Is it Kabuki enough yet?” she asked him.
Another way to understand the contrast between Vreeland and Wintour (the subject of her own documentary, “The September Issue,” 2009) is to compare their fictionalized screen incarnations. Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), is all icy dominance. She rules through fear. Kay Thompson’s Maggie Prescott, in “Funny Face” (1957), is gale-force force of nature. She rules through excess.
Actually, Vreeland outdoes Wintour on the fiction-film front. She inspired Grayson Hall’s Miss Maxwell, in William Klein’s “Who Are You, Polly Magoo?” (1966). Seeing as how Klein’s day job as a photographer included fashion work for Conde Nast, his was very much an insider’s view. Vreeland also shows up, by name, in “Infamous,” played by Juliet Stevenson, and “Factory Girl” (both 2006), played by Ileana Douglas.
Diana Dalziel was born in Paris, in 1903. The daughter of an American mother and British father, she grew up in Paris and New York, where she met her husband, then spent much of the ’30s living in London (Reed Vreeland worked there as a banker). She regularly crossed the Channel to be fitted by Coco Chanel. Shortly after the Vreelands moved back to New York, she was hired to be a columnist at Harper’s Bazaar. Carmel Snow, the magazine’s editor, had been impressed by Vreeland’s innate stylishness.
“I realized if I was going to make it, I would need to stand out,” Vreeland later said. Her “Why Don’t You?” column became a minor sensation.
S.J. Perelman parodied it in The New Yorker. “Why don’t you wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?” That’s Vreeland, not Perelman.
At Harper’s Bazaar, she discovered Lauren Bacall, worked closely with Richard Avedon (who revered her, despite Vreeland’s invariably calling him “Aberdeen”), and served as unofficial fashion consultant to Jacqueline Kennedy. “Dear Mrs. Vreeland,” the latter wrote to her in the summer of 1960, “You are psychic as well as an angel.”
At Vogue, she responded to the ’60s with the zest, and inspiration, of a fifth Beatle. “I don’t think anyone has ever been in a better place at a better time,” she once wrote, “than I was when I was editor of Vogue.” A decade defined by youth was the editorial heyday of Vreeland in her 60s. Post-Vogue, she adjusted well to the ’70s, as likely to be seen at Studio 54 as at the Met. What Roger Federer is now to Wintour, Warhol was to Vreeland then.
In “D.V.,” Vreeland describes Chanel as “extraordinary. The alertness of the woman! The charm ! You would have fallen in love with her. She was mesmerizing, strange, charming, witty . . . you can’t compare anyone with Chanel.” She could have been describing herself.
The quotable Mrs. Vreeland
‘I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.’
‘What do I think about the waymost people dress? Most people are not something one thinks about.’
‘The best thing about London is Paris.’
‘Pink is the navy blue of India.’
‘Lots of people have terrible taste, you know, and make a damn good living off of it.’
‘Lettuce is divine, although I’m not sure it’s really food.’
‘Blue jeans are the most beautiful things since the gondola.’
‘Peacocks, I always say, are unbelievably beautiful —but they’re vulgar.’
‘I think it was Goethe who said, “There is glory to madness that only madmen know.’’ It’s a beautiful statement, but I’m afraid I may have made it up. If I did, it’s better than his.’
‘Elegance is refusal.’