Diana Vreeland is known as an iconic magazine editor, a fashion visionary, someone who saw and created beauty like no other. Designer Hubert de Givenchy described her thus: “She was more than just an editor. She was something extraordinary. She was the creator of fashion and she understood fashion - in a totally different way”. Here are 15 things you should know about this phenomenal woman.
1. Diana Dalziel was born in Paris in 1903 and it was here that she would became close friends with the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel. She said that Coco really understood what women would become, that their future would be a different one to the restricted past of the previous decades. She understood that "they would need to wear flats and walk in the rain". Diana attributes her knowledge of fashion to Chanel. No one had a better sense of luxury than her.
2. At about the same time in the 30s, Diana opened her own lingerie business in London. One of her clients was Wallis Simpson, mistress to Britain’s King Edward VIII, who once ordered three nightgowns for a weekend away. The King’s desire to marry a twice divorced woman ultimately led to his abdication in 1936. Wallis Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor.
3. In the mid to late 30s circumstances were changing for everyone, including Vreeland. The clouds of war were looming and Diana left Europe to live with her family in New York. Money was tight, until one day Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, saw Diana at the St Regis Hotel in New York. Snow admired Vreeland’s Chanel outfit, which ultimately led to a job offer at the magazine.
4. Although her role at Harper’s Bazaar was to write a column called “Why don’t you...?", which consisted of lighthearted, yet very practical tips on everyday life, she soon became fashion editor. And she did it with passion. Diana was the first person to photograph a model in a bikini. Her contemporaries were shocked by the idea. Her response was: “With an attitude like that, you keep civilisation back 1000 years!”
5. Vreeland was also known for popularising blue jeans, she advised First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy about what to wear and she discovered fresh faces such as Lauren Bacall to grace the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. We all know how Bacall’s career took off after that!
6. In the 60s, Diana took up an offer by Alexander Lieberman to become editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine.
7. The fashion stories Diana and her team created for Vogue were unique and had a way of transporting the reader away from the humdrum of everyday life. "A new dress doesn't get you anywhere. It's the life you're living in the dress…" summed up her philosophy and it showed in the fashion spreads.
8. The Vogue team would travel to exotic destinations with the best couture the world had ever seen. A popular Vogue editorial from the time was called "The Great Fur Caravan". The fashion story was photographed in the middle of winter in Japan in 1966 by the legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Think big fur coats, Japanese parasols, majestic mountains covered in snow, ancient temples and a romantic love story between the model, Veruschka, and a tall Japanese man. The shoot is rumoured to have cost $1 million dollars back then.
9. Embracing someone’s imperfections and making it their trademark was another of Diana’s greatest qualities. If you had a gap between your teeth, or you had a large nose, Diana would highlight these elements in the photographs. For example, she had Barbra Streisand photographed for a fashion shoot in profile, ultimately focusing on her prominent nose.
10. This quirky approach had a lot to do with Diana’s upbringing. Her mother was a socialite and never showed much emotion toward her two daughters. Her sister was the beautiful one and Diana was always treated as the ugly duckling. Not being fluent in English at the school she attended in New York made matters worse and she soon developed a stutter, which in those days was frowned upon (think George Vl in The King’s Speech).
11. That all changed when she met her husband Reed Vreeland. He was the man of her dreams and the love of her life, a man who accepted her for who she was and always had a way of making her feel beautiful, no matter what her mother had said.
12. After her time at Vogue, she became a consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1971. This is where she created exhibitions honouring legendary fashion designers and capturing the essence of different eras. They weren’t just ordinary exhibitions though. It’s as if she created real-life stories using magnificent couture, artwork, music, walls that were painted in bright colours - she even pumped fragrances into the air vents. As her grandson, Nicholas, described so perfectly, “It was a magazine that was alive.”
13. By 1984 she had organized twelve exhibitions. Celebrities such as Bianca Jagger, Cher and Jerry Hall attended the party on opening night and people queued down the street when the exhibition opened to the public, proving just how successful it was.
14. Diana was an eccentric who pushed the boundaries in everything she did. Her home spoke volumes about her. The entire living room was red. Red printed wallpaper, matching red curtains, red sofas, red cushions - even red flowers. Antique mirrors and portraits of her family hung on the walls, including portraits of herself by various well-known artists. There were Louis Vuitton trunks with her initials ‘D.V.V’ on them, shoes scattered everywhere, her shelves filled with books such as “Letters from Africa” and “Last Tales” by Isak Dinesen, another famous female eccentric of the time. She called her living room “a garden in hell”. Conversations with writer George Plimpton about her life took place in that very room and led to him helping Diana to write her memoirs, which she simply called D.V.
15. She died in Manhattan in 1989 aged 86. There is no doubt that Diana’s style and influence will always be felt throughout the fashion industry and beyond.
Photograph permission by www.dianavreeland.com. Photograph credits in order: Portrait of Diana Vreeland, photograph by Louise-Dahl Wolfe, courtesy of the Louise Dahl-Wolfe Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © 1989 Arizona Board of Regents; Painting of Diana Vreeland by William Acton; Portrait of Diana Vreeland in Vogue Office, photograph by James Karales, courtesy of the Estate of James Karales; Portrait of Diana Vreeland and Marisa Berenson, photograph by James Karales, courtesy of the Estate of James Karales; Portrait of Diana Vreeland by Horst P. Horst: Horst P. Horst, 1979, © Estate of Horst P. Horst / Art + Commerce.