Today, she is still considered to be the ‘Empress of fashion’. As the 20th century’s most formidable arbiter elegantiarum who pre-dates the likes of Anna Wintour, Diana Vreeland’s life was that of the utmost Rakishness. An editor of influence and inspiration, with many movies attempting to adapt her persona (see Maggie Prescott in 1959’s Funny Face), countless women have tried to fill her shoes. The Devil wears what now?
Before fashion editors became insta-celebrities, there was the self-invented and completely captivating woman of society, Diana Vreeland, whose inner circle consisted of equally as riveting female company such as Coco Chanel and Wallis Simpson to Greta Garbo and Lauren Bacall (whom Vreeland had discovered and propelled into the limelight by promptly turning her into a cover model). Vreeland’s Hollywood relationships were not only pursued but actual friendships; she knew them intimately and without any sense of amour propre.
“There’s only one very good life and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself,” Vreeland once said, and true to form, hers was a very good life. Diana threw herself into society, seeking out those who she thought looked and acted interesting. She discovered her own sense of style which never differed throughout the years, that of scarlet lipstick and matching nails, her signature black clothes which diverted attention from her ‘imperfect’ features.
Her style caught the attention of one Carmel Snow, the then Editor of Harpers Bazaar in 1936. Having asked her to work at the magazine, Vreeland wrote in her memoirs: “Carmel admired what I had on—it was a white lace Chanel dress with a bolero, and I had roses in my hair—and she asked me if I’d like a job.” Vreeland’s publishing career took off with her first ever column ‘Why Don’t You?’ – a column which garnered a lot of attention for suggesting outré tips such as “Why Don’t You: Wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France.”she became Fashion Editor not too long after.
In 1962, however, Vreeland was undermined by Hearst and failed to climb the ladder, further resulting in a leap over to Vogue. There she served as Editor-In-Chief for eight years and is credited for her creative eye, having brought in quirky-looking girls such as Veruschka, Tree, Twiggy, Anjelica Huston, Marisa Berenson and 60’s starlet, Edie Sedgwick. Anjelica Huston recalls;
“She seemed almost alien. She had this incredibly royal approach to things, dressed all in black. When she looked at me, it was both terrifying and challenging at the same time.”
It’s almost as if she had spent her lifetime compensating for her features she didn’t approve of by constantly surrounding herself with people and things she did. Vreeland lived in a world of extremes; to a dinner guest who had been complaining of her outré nature, Vreeland replied, frustrated “Don’t you know? Exaggeration is my only reality.” It is noted the Vreelands lived a very sybaritic existence, not only from Diana’s fashion enterprise (including a lingerie boutique on the side), but also from her social influence, having cultivated the White Russian, Jewish, and European society figures and artists who turned New York into the world’s most cosmopolitan capital during and after the war.
Ethics, as far as she was concerned, only mattered if they affected fashion, having been remembered by illustrator Joe Eula ‘coolly ignoring a vial of cocaine that rolled out of my pocket during a meeting’—only to advise him as he left, to wear pockets that buttoned. Kenneth Jay Lane says, “I remember her son Tim once told me, “‘Mom had no sense of right or wrong—to her things were either interesting or uninteresting.’” Her moral compass, it would seem, is to have existed only for the sake of doing what she loved, and that, above all else, was to spark the imagination.