This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
There is no shortage of fantastic Diana Vreeland quotes. Actually, fantastical might be a better word—the legendary fashion writer and editor was known for grand proclamations about style, beauty, and life in general. As lavish as many of her statements were (“Unshined shoes are the end of civilization,” among them), one cannot deny that her devotion to aesthetic was admirable. In fact, that’s an attribute carried on by her granddaughter, Caroline Vreeland, author of CR‘s Going to Bed With Caroline Vreeland.
A debutant who hated the way she looked, Vreeland discovered fashion and makeup at an early age. However, she didn’t enter the industry (save for a brief stint running a lingerie shop in Paris) until she was in her 30s—and that was entirely by happenstance. As the story goes, Vreeland was dancing at a nightclub in New York when she caught the eye of Carmel Snow, who was the editor of Harper’s Bazaar at the time. Snow was enamored with her style, and offered her a job the very next day. So began Vreeland’s career as one of the most influential magazine editors ever.
She first made her mark with “Why Don’t You?” an advice column that was ripe with deliciously extravagant tips. Her most famous entry read: “Why don’t you…rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?” During her time at Bazaar, Vreeland was credited with discovering Lauren Bacall and working with photographer Richard Avedon to great success, but was never offered a top position at the publication.
In 1962 she decamped from Bazaar to helm its rival—Vogue—where she was editor-in-chief for nearly a decade. Now in a position with some real weight, her whimsical air actually held command. She helped launch the careers of models like Twiggy and guided the likes of Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg to design success.
She even became the basis for Maggie Prescott, the commanding fashion editor in the 1957 film, Funny Face. Avedon, who consulted on the film, was the basis for the character Dick Avery, while Audrey Hepburn famously played Jo Stockton, an unassuming bookstore employee turned model and muse.
By 1971 Vreeland was pushed out of the editor position. Her ideas, which at that point still heavily focused on flower children and fashion that serviced a picture more than a human body, no longer felt modern to readers. She could have retired at that point and who would blame her, given all that she had already accomplished? But never one to slink away, Vreeland simply found a new outlet for her love of fashion by becoming a consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Under her guidance, The Met became a major hub for fashion exhibitions and parties, with her annual show and black tie bash. In fact, she planted the seed for the behemoth fashion event we know today at the Met Gala.
When Vreeland died in 1989, one writer declared her the “voice of fashion for decades.” More than that, she was fashion’s eye, its guiding hand. Over the course of her career, Vreeland shaped two of the most prominent magazines of the century, and made fashion a substantial topic at one of New York’s most influential museums. One can’t help but agree with Avedon when he declared that she was the “only genius fashion editor.”
It’s thanks to Vreeland that most people learned to see fashion as a creative pursuit in the first place. The great debate as to whether or not fashion is art may rage on, but at least it’s an ongoing conversation.
There are also some hard lessons we can learn from Vreeland—particularly that being true to one’s self and one’s convictions is what makes a person memorable, even if those ideas might not be to everyone’s liking. For all of her outlandish quotes, there is one in particular that is both grounded and inspiring: “There’s only one very good life,” she said. “And that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.”END
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