The Empress of Style – La Belle Époque of Diana Vreeland

It is 1982 Diana Vreeland graces the cover of New York Magazine.


She is wearing huge gold cuffs on each wrist and her quintessential bone necklace around her neck. Her confidence and vigour leap off the page. She is an icon, her sense of style and originality are singular.


She is about to host a dinner which will cost five thousand dollars a plate. The theme of the show is La Belle Époque, a gilded age that Mrs. Vreeland is not only familiar with, but, along with the swinging ‘60s, holds closest to her heart. 


This illustrated piece on Mrs.Vreeland’s show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she is a special consultant is written by the then-fashion editor of New York Magazine, a young writer by the name of Anna Wintour.


Anna Wintour will become the editor of Vogue, but she will never achieve the pinnacle of panache occupied by Diana Vreeland.


At the time of Diana Vreeland’s death in 1989, legendary photographer Richard Avedon remarked that “she was and remains the only genius fashion editor.” 


Before fashion editors became personalities/street-style stars/fodder for major motion pictures, there was Diana, eminently quotable, largely self-invented and always fascinating.


Vreeland was noted for taking fashion seriously. She commented in 1946 that the bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb. To her “Unshined shoes are the end of civilisation.” Balenciaga?


“One never knew what one was going to see at a Balenciaga opening. One fainted. It was possible to blow up and die.” 


Such was her star power and style it is difficult to believe she was only editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 until 1971. 


All people who have style share one thing in common, she declared: “Originality! There’s only one thing in life, and that’s the continual renewal of inspiration.”


Bad taste?


“A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”


Vreeland adored the sixties because she felt that uniqueness was being celebrated. “If you had a bump on your nose, it made no difference so long as you had a marvellous body and good carriage.”


In 1960 when Kennedy became president, Diana Vreeland advised the First Lady in matters of style. It was Vreeland who advised Jackie throughout the campaign and helped connect her with fashion designer Oleg Cassini who later became chief designer to FLOTUS.


In 1984 Vreeland explained how she saw fashion magazines. “What these magazines gave was a point of view. Most people haven’t got a point of view; they need to have it given to them!”


“I think part of my success as an editor came from never worrying about a fact, a cause, an atmosphere. It was me—projecting to the public. That was my job. I think I always had a perfectly clear view of what was possible for the public. Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted.”


She would send memos to her staff urging them to be creative. One said, “Today let’s think pig white! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have stockings that were pig white! The colour of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink!”


“There’s only one very good life and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself” Vreeland famously said. 


She devoted herself to this infectious, all-encompassing idea that you could make yourself as interesting—as fabulous—as you wanted. Why be boring?  


In the 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) gives a copy of Vreeland’s autobiography to a thrift-store clerk and tells him to “commit sections to memory”. 


Later, the clerk quotes a passage that reads “That season we were loaded with pizazz. Earrings of fuchsia and peach. Mind you, peach. And hats. Hats, hats, hats, for career girls. How I adored Paris.”


Vreeland always said “I’d like to have been Elizabeth the First. She was wonderful. She surrounded herself with poets and writers, lived at Hampton Court, and drove that little team of spotted ponies with long tails….She’s at the top of my list. I loved the clothes. It took her four hours to dress—we have a lot in common!”


“I adore artifice. I always have.”