Scarlet Woman: The Life of Diana Vreeland

Trailer for Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

 'She had this taste for the extraordinary...she took the mundane and the mediocre and she made it ravishing, and she made it OK for women to be ambitious, for women to be outlandish and extraordinary and for women to garner attention.' - Anjelica Houston

I’ve been asked what criteria I use to determine whether or not someone is a “Scandalous Woman?”  Most of the women that I have written about were either Scandalous for their love lives or because they operated outside the normal boundaries of society as they were dictated by the mores of the time.  For example, Elizabeth Blackwell would be considered scandalous because she dared to apply to medical school to become a doctor in the 1840’s, at a time when women were barely educated apart from reading, writing, and a little light math. Exploring the sciences considered beyond a women’s intelligence.

So why Diana Vreeland one might ask? Why write about her? Most people, if they think of Vreeland of all, have an image of a woman with helmet like black hair, wearing a great deal of rouge, making pronouncements like ‘Pink is the navy blue of India.’ Recently I took a documentary out of the library entitled ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’ directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, her granddaughter-in-law.  Watching the film, seeing how Vreeland reinvented herself over the years, moving from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue as editor-in-chief at an age when most people are retiring, I was inspired by her joie-de-vivre, by her ability to look ahead when others were looking back.  For a woman who was largely self-educated, what she accomplished in her lifetime was quite remarkable. Like many Scandalous Women, Vreeland was her greatest creation.

By the time of her death in 1989 at the age of 85, Vreeland was a cultural icon. She’d inspired a one-woman Off-Broadway show starring Mary Louise Wilson, she was the inspiration for Kay Thompson’s character in the film Funny Face.  In the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin the character of Alison Du Bois was based on Vreeland. She even advised Jackie Kennedy on what to wear when she became First Lady helping to connect her with designers such as Oleg Cassini. Not many magazine editors become celebrities in their own right, Vreeland was one of the first. She appeared on TV talk shows, talking about fashion, that it was an important part of history. Whippet thin, she was instantly recognizable with her jet black hair, scarlet fingernails and rouged cheeks and ears. Red was her signature color from her nails, lips, cheeks to her the living room in her Park Avenue apartment which she had designed to look like ‘a garden in hell.’

Diana Vreeland went to work, at a time when women of her social class spent most of their time doing charity work, those ‘ladies who lunch,’ when they weren’t playing tennis at the country club. While living in London, she opened a lingerie shop.  When she and her husband moved back to the states, she went to work as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, moving from writing a column entitled ‘Why Don’t You?” to becoming the fashion editor for the magazine for 26 years. How did she get the job? Well Carmel Snow, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, saw Vreeland dancing at the St. Regis hotel, wearing a white Chanel lace dress with a bolero, roses in her dark hair. Snow was struck by Vreeland’s innate sense of style and offered her a job. It came at the perfect time, although her husband was lucky enough to have a job during the Great Depression, the couple were going through money like an alcoholic goes through vodka.  Money was incredibly important to her and she made no secret of it. Vreeland worked for a living until she was too ill to be productive.

Some of her suggestions for her column are hilarious, for example dressing a child like a Spanish Infanta for a fancy-dress party or wearing 12 diamond roses but the message was clear. Why be dull when you can be interesting? It was a mantra that Vreeland lived by.  As a child, she was told by her mother Emily, “It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her. This, of course, is why you are so impossible to deal with.” Awesome parenting skills there Mom! You know that old saying ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Diana and her American debutante mother had a contentious relationship although it turns out, they had a lot in common. Her mother was a free-spirited woman who hung out with a bohemian crowd, and was involved in a divorce scandal. All her life, Diana Vreeland was looking for someone to idealize, to look up to, but never found her. Instead, she turned herself into someone that others could idealize and look up to! How clever is that? To become the thing that you were looking for? Like the Duchess of Windsor, Diana realized that dressing well was the best revenge. She might not be the most beautiful woman but she would be the best dressed woman.

On the other hand, Diana worshipped her handsome father Frederick Dalziel who she resembled. Although he came from a middle-class background in England, her father successfully cultivated an upper-class mien which went over well when her parents moved from Paris to New York soon after she was born. Although she later wrote that she grew up in Paris, in a home where Diaghilev and Nijinsky were regular visitors, she actually grew up in New York. Paris, however, would always be her spiritual home. Her husband Reed Vreeland, a handsome, impeccably dressed Yale graduate who worked as a banker, had many of the same qualities as her father, along with one additional one, an inability to be faithful. Still they remained married for 43 years until his death in 1966 from cancer. His love gave her the self-assurance that she was lacking. True to her nature, instead of wearing black for mourning, she wore red. Their two sons were something of an afterthought in their parents’ mad, social whirl. While she may have been a distant mother, she was a warm and generous grandmother and great-grandmother in her later years.

Vreeland redefined the role of fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Fashion shoots no longer featured society types wearing the latest fashions.  Vreeland used professional models, including Lauren Bacall who was featured on the cover of the magazine.  “Today only personality counts…I do not believe we should put in the magazine so-called society, as it is démodé and practically doesn’t exist….but ravishing personalities are the most riveting things in the world.” While at Bazaar, Vreeland popularized the turtleneck and the bikini which scandalized America. Vreeland later featured a photo of Mick Jagger in Vogue magazine before the Rolling Stones were a huge success simply because she liked his look.  She had her finger in every aspect of the photo shoot, she oversaw the photography and worked with the models to create the look that she was going for. Diana and her husband also entertained all the European emigres at their apartment on Park Avenue and their country home in Westchester.

When Carmel Snow retired, Vreeland was passed over as editor-in-chief of the magazine (apparently Snow thought Vreeland didn’t have what it takes for the top job), the job went Snow’s niece Nancy White instead. Vreeland stuck it out for a few more years before Vogue (now owned by the Newhouse family) snapped her up after she charmed Mitzi Newhouse. Despite publicly stating that she wouldn’t change anything in the magazine, Vreeland swept in and changed everything! It was the swinging sixties and Vreeland, at the age of 60, embraced all that was new particularly the fashions, models and photographers coming out of Great Britain. Vreeland also pushed for models who weren’t perfect or were unusual like Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Edie Sedgwick, Anjelica Houston, Veruschka and Lauren Hutton. She didn’t want cookie cutter blondes or brunettes, she wanted individuals with personality who turned their flaws into assets the way that she had. "If you had a bump on your nose, it made no difference so long as you had a marvelous body and good carriage." What’s amazing as that she managed to accomplish so much despite never arriving at the office before noon! (She made up for by staying at the office sometimes ‘til midnight, fortifying herself with a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a glass of scotch and a shot of B-12 at lunch.)  

Vreeland lasted only 8 years at Vogue done in by the expensive photo shoots (Vreeland thought nothing of sending a photographer to photograph white tigers in India and then not using the photos in the magazine) and the changing times. Vreeland’s Vogue was all about fantasy and not the reality of women’s lives in the 1970’s. Vreeland always had her detractors, while many found her visionary, others found her erratic, impossible, abrasive and clueless. After she was fired from Vogue, she went to work as a consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curating the annual fashion exhibition for the Costume Institute. It was a job that she initially thought she wasn’t right for since she didn’t come from an academic background but she was just what the museum needed. She had an eye for what would draw people to the museum. From her first show on Balenciaga in 1973 until 1987, Vreeland put on 15 exhibitions and put the Costume Institute on the map.  Shows on Costume in Film, La Belle Époque, the 18th Century Woman, and Russian Costume, the exhibitions were incredibly popular. Although it’s now called the Anna Wintour Costume Institute, it really should be named after Vreeland who put the institute on the map. Or at least have a gallery named after her (that’s my humble and cranky opinion).

Vreeland was true American original, forward thinking, but eccentric individual. She’s a reminder that there not only second acts in life but also third and fourth. They don’t make them like her anymore and it’s a damn shame. 

Further reading:

Alexander Vreeland (editor): Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman: The Bazaar Years, 1936-1962, Rizzoli, 2015
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart: Empress of Fashion - A Life of Diana Vreeland, Harper 2012
Diana Vreeland: D.V., Knopf, 1984


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