11:35 am Sep. 21, 20121
By Diana Vreeland’s own account, being born in Paris was her first unimpeachably chic move.
In Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s engrossing, elegantly confounding tribute to the self-willed life and style of her grandmother-in-law which opens today, the legendary fashion editor boils down her design for living this way: “It’s very important to be born in Paris; the rest follows quite naturally.”
The Eye Has to Travel is crammed cheek to rouge-blasted cheek with similarly whimsical, entirely serious exhortations, metaphors, and world-class epigrams. Many of them express contempt for what’s done naturally, byproducts of a war of attrition that seems to have fomented in girlhood, when Vreeland’s (American-born) mother helped set the course of her life—Parisian birth notwithstanding—in defining Diana by her plainness. Vreeland would never put it that way, of course—too direct, and more important too boring.
Instead she might direct you to her first encounter with Nijinsky, and the image of him leaping through a window like one of God’s own gazelles onstage. Born in 1903, Vreeland was a girl when the best of the ballet world passed through her parents’ Paris apartment, leaving in their wake the intoxicating scent of a life lived in and for beauty. If she couldn’t emulate it precisely, Vreeland vowed to find a way to embody, seek, and promote that beauty in whatever form she could.
Briefly, her origin story goes like this: Having developed a stutter (like royalty!) upon being shuttled to America at the outbreak of World War I, Vreeland studied dance; found a beautiful husband in banker Reed Vreeland; moved to Britain with him (“The best thing about London is Paris”) where she watched George V’s coronation in person; and was spotted dancing at a party by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, who offered Vreeland a job in New York just in time to sit out WWII. She still managed to peep Hitler in the flesh, though, at a Berlin opera on what Vreeland claims was the night before the war. That mustache? “Just wrong!”
Did the twentieth century create her or was she an expert at sustaining a cherished idea of the twentieth century? More than she mythologized herself, perhaps, Vreeland mythologized her moment. Although the first line of her 1983 autobiography proclaims her loathing for nostalgia, in The Eye Has to Travel Vreeland is shown reveling in her own good timing, from being born before Europe fell (“It was the Belle Époque!”) to coming of age just as women were bobbing their hair and their skirts for the first time in modern history (“It was the Roaring Twenties!”) to reaching her professional, taste-making pinnacle during a decade of social and cultural revolution (“I loved the Sixties—that was the youthquake!”). It feels telling that the last coinage is Vreeland’s own, a term she used to accompany a 1965 profile of young Edie Sedgwick from her high priestess perch at Vogue (where she was photographed, below, by James Karales).
A teller of tall tales (she claimed to have seen Charles Lindbergh soar over her Connecticut house in 1927, piloting his historic transatlantic flight to Paris), Vreeland was a self-declared romantic, a key to her character that is drawn out in The Eye Has to Travel but never put to use. She would rather dream of India and Russia than visit them, we are told, because the real thing could never measure up; though we see a clip of her declaring science to be the only way forward, one imagines the sentiment extending about as far as the last page of her 2001-inspired editorial spread. She celebrated the eccentric and sustained a level of wanton imagination in the fashion magazine world that would become impossible almost immediately following her reign. In that way we can share in her nostalgia; underlying most of these ritual celebrations of our favorite twentieth-century figures—the Plaths and Roosevelts and Monroes—is a nostalgia for the time when they could exist, which is to say when they could imagine and be imagined.
In television clips and the lengthy audio interviews conducted between Vreeland and George Plimpton (well recreated here using actors), Vreeland shuts down personal inquiries that can’t be vanquished with a crisp one-liner. Why talk about your mother’s casual cruelty, or your two sons (who remember their mother with riveting ambivalence here), or your adoring husband’s death at 42, anyway? “Naturally we didn’t discuss it,” Vreeland says of Reed’s untimely diagnosis. “Why would we discuss cancer?” How unfabulous is that?
The limits placed on Immordino Vreeland by a presumed family obligation and her subject’s superstructure persona create a fascinating narrative tension in an otherwise admirably executed but boilerplate personality piece. The Eye Has to Travel enforces the legend of “Diana Vreeland” even while exposing it as the life’s work of a woman devoted to artifice, beauty, and self-invention. The format feels like an extension of the doyenne’s preferred mode: breezy and fabulous, forever trading bisoux and bon mots with her peers.
Vreeland’s privilege is treated lightly, in the old style, and the focus stays on her career, where she collaborated with photographers like David Bailey and Richard Avedon and designers like Oscar de la Renta and Hubert de Givenchy. A woman of unique power at the height of the civil rights era, she feigned bafflement at the feminist movement, or maybe she didn’t. The sense is that she contributed whether she wanted or meant to or not, and that it didn’t stop her from saying crazy shit like “every girl should have geisha training.”
If, as we are told here, fashion is life and Diana is fashion, then the ultimate thesis of Immordino Vreeland’s film would seem to be that Diana is life. It gets closer to convincing us that she was lively, singular, and madly, wonderfully of her time. She lived a life of greatness—certainly by modern standards, where public legacy and proximity to our cherished celebrity institutions have ultimate value. Whether she lived a great life is a question any viewer of The Eye Has to Travel could imagine her hooting at, before waving it away with a bony, bangled wrist.
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