Fashion's Original Tyrant

By Givhan, Robin | Newsweek, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

Fashion's Original Tyrant


Givhan, Robin, Newsweek


Byline: Robin Givhan

Diana Vreeland was imperious, eccentric, and unforgettable.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Diana Vreeland is single-handedly responsible for the pop-culture meme that great fashion editors are flamboyant and eccentric, possess the temperaments of tyrants, and are prone to mysterious pronouncements about pink being the navy blue of India. But more important than her easily caricatured personality, Vreeland's creative gestures were so bold and sweeping that ever since she strode the halls of Vogue magazine for much of the 1960s, all other editors in chief have been compared to her.

Vreeland was the inspiration for actress Kay Thompson's imperious fashion editor in the film Funny Face. Vreeland was terrorizing assistants long before Meryl Streep made Anne Hathaway cower in The Devil Wears Prada. Vreeland was fashion's original bulldozing diva--but she wore Chanel.

Vreeland began her career as the fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, where she first gained confidence and made a reputation as a working woman with an eye for style and a nose for what's next. But it was at Vogue, as editor in chief, that the legendary "DV" was born.

While at Vogue, from 1962 to 1971, she transformed a magazine focused on society swans and long-necked mannequins into a global souk sprinkled with Hollywood glitter. She sent a caravan of editors, photographers, and models around the world, instructing them to bring back souvenirs, stories, and elaborate fantasies that took readers outside their quotidian lives.

Vreeland was a well-traveled woman--having been born in Paris and living in London and then New York. But she often spoke about the magic of countries from Russia to Mongolia as if she had seen them with her own eyes when, instead, she had really only seen them in her imagination.

But few places could compare to Vreeland's vast imagination. In everything from the story of her life to a photo story in the magazine, Vreeland tended to exaggerate and gild the lily. Indeed, she sometimes simply made things up. Her ease with the well-placed lie was as much a secret to her success as it was a flaw.

Over the years, Vreeland has been an irresistible subject for writers and filmmakers. Indeed, her memoir, D.V., which was edited by George Plimpton, is, in some ways, her own personal tall tale. The play Full Gallop took audiences into Vreeland's red-lacquer Manhattan apartment just after she was fired from Vogue and before she became a consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Full Gallop aimed to bring her spirit to life, if not tell the gimlet-eyed truth about the actual woman.

It may be that it takes the full complement of media to even get close to the story of a woman whose surface was so captivating--jet black hair, highly rouged cheeks, and a beak-like nose that plastic surgery never rendered characterless--but whose interior was so confounding. The Eye Has to Travel, a documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland scheduled for a limited release on Sept. …

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