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Fashion Film: Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

A new film celebrates the life of legendary fashion icon Diana Vreeland, exploring her friendship with Chanel and her work at Harper's Bazaar and the Metropolitan Museum of Art…

Written by Matt Bramford

Diana Vreeland by Maya Beus

‘When we think about an iconic person, an editor; we always say Diana Vreeland’. A pretty bold opening statement launches this fashion film, but by the end it’s impossible not to agree.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel is the latest in a series of fashumentaries that I’m obsessed with (I’m pretty sure I haven’t coined fashumentaries myself, but it’s the best I could come up with at 11pm last night) . Halston’s Ultrasuede, Valentino’s The Last Emperor; a rare glimpse into the fantasy world of fashion through the stories of those who lived it.

This particular film documents the life and times of Diana Vreeland, from her first glimpses of fashion growing up during La Belle Epoque to her revolutionary efforts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The movie is fused together with transcripts of conversations between Vreeland and George Plimpton, her biographer, retold by actors who’ve captured Vreeland’s dulcet vocals perfectly.

Diana Vreeland

Vreeland states that her greatest asset was ‘arranging to be born in Paris’. Legendaries like Diaghilev popped in for tea and Vreeland spent summers in the Rocky Mountains with Buffalo Bill. At times you wonder if she’s making it up. Peppered amongst archive footage of various world-changing events are Vreeland’s rare on-tape interviews with a number of American interviewers. Her wide-eyed responses are captivating, as is her innate and often wicked sense of humour in a language that isn’t her first. ‘Diana, where you always pleased with the way you looked?’ asks one. ‘Good God, NO!’ she recalls in horror, ‘You can’t go around like a smug mademoiselle from about seven years up, mmm mmm’. Vreeland explicitly states that she was never comfortable with her looks until she met Reed Vreeland, a New York banker. It was ‘love at first sight’, she tells us, whilst later admitting that even afer 46 years, she still felt shy around him. ‘Don’t all women feel shy around men?’ she asks, coyly.

Harper’s Bazaar 1965 by Shy Illustrations

A difficult childhood provided the impetus to climb the fashion ladder. The ‘ugly duckling’ of the family, she describes her mother as a ‘wild woman’ and her father as ‘an Englishman – there was little visible emotion.’ Her first passion was, in fact, dancing, but it was to be her ‘roaring twenties’ and an acute, unashamed desire for popularity that would build the character we’re familiar with.

‘The best thing about London is… Paris!’ Diana declares as we’re thrusted into her teenage years. Here we enjoy archive clips of classic Chanel collections and clips of those notorious stairs. But it was a lingerie shop in London that would decide her fate. After a fitting with Wallace Simpson, she later discovered that the homewreckin’ harlot was off for a dirty weekend with the current King Edward VIII at the beginning of their love affair. In essence, it was Vreeland’s lingerie shop that ‘brought down the monarchy’.

These dramatic events provide a basis for the film’s synopsis. From Lindbergh flying over her and her son on his maiden voyage across the Atlantic, to Vreeland’s shocking publication a bikini fashion story, the first to do so; to discovering Lauren Bacall, putting her on the cover and introducing her to Hollywood and the world.

1970s Harper’s Bazaar by Amyisla McCombie

One evening Vreeland met Carmel Snow, then editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, at a dance. Snow approached Vreeland to compliment her on her dress – ‘Chanel, of COURSE’. The two struck up a friendship and Snow demanded she joined the Harper’s team. A simple invitation – ‘Why don’t you work for Harper’s?’ turned into the infamous ‘Why Don’t You‘ column. So here’s Vreeland, in an age of austerity not dissimilar to the slump we’re currently in, advocating that you wash your daughter’s hair in Champagne to keep it golden, or ‘Why Don’t You… wear violet velvet mittens, with EVERYTHING?’ It was an absurd, frivolous column but one that captivated readers and provided fantasy and escapism – key commitments that would be the themes Diana stuck to for the rest of her illustrious career.

Twiggy by Simon Myers

The film is flooded with the key events that punctuated Vreeland’s career at Harper’s, particuarly her obsession with British street culture and the Swinging Sixties. Speaking about Twiggy, she exclaims, ‘such a face, such a girl, such a WOW!’ The Beatles fueled Diana’s love for contemporary music, and when British Vogue dismissed a photograph offered by David Bailey of Mick Jagger for being a ‘nobody’, it was Diana who published it in Harper’s. ‘Those LIPS!’ she squeals. Vreeland had a reputation for highlighting unusual features and celebrating beauty in an alternative way – she shot Barbra Streisand in profile; focussed on long legs and necks; made the gaps in models’ teeth into a feature rather than something to be hidden away.

Vox pops come from the great and good of fashion – designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg, Oscar de la Renta, Hubert de Givenchy and Calvin Klein; photographers Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Lillian Bassman, magazine publishing mogul John Fairchild; models China Machado, Penelope Tree and Lauren Hutton and one of my favourite actresses, Anjelica Huston. They all talk of the innate skill and awareness that nobody, in fashion at that time, rivalled. A fashion story might be shot six times, and even when Vreeland declared she adored a set of pictures, she might still reshoot for some frustrating reason – ‘no languor in the lips’. ‘I wanted to strangle her,’ declares Penelope Tree.

Towards the end, the film explores the sadness of Vreeland’s dismissal from Vogue before bouncing back with her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s Costume Institute. Vreeland ‘got the people through the door’ with blockbuster fashion showcases of Balenciaga, Russian costume and Yves Saint Laurent, paving the way for fashion exhibitions as we know them.

Diana Vreeland by Maya Beus

This is a beautifully made film with archive clips that will have fashion fans squealing, alongside humour, wit and poignancy. It’s a fitting tribute to a fashion legend.

To celebrate the launch of Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travelon DVD, we’ve got 5 posters signed by Diana’s director granddaughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland to give away – head over to our Facebook page for more details!


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