Directors: Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Frédéric Tcheng
“Without it (style), you’re nobody”. The Eye Has to Travel is full of these; little morsels of, depending how you look at them, perceptive genius or narcissistic fluff. Every line worth remembering comes from the mouth of Diana Vreeland herself. Vreeland died in 1989 so these are taken from archive footage or transcription for her autobiography (her accent sounds like a cross between Audrey and Katherine Hepburn). These quotes may read as boorish, but such is the zest and charm of Vreeland, in context they sum up a woman who dedicated herself to the eradication of banality.
The most influential fashion editor of all time, Diana Vreeland arrived in the world, specifically Paris, in 1903 during La Belle Époque and never truly let go. She departed France for America with her family, sampling the jazz and dancing of 1920s Harlem in her teens before settling into work – something she admits was never on her agenda – after a chance meeting with Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow. Becoming fashion editor for Harper’s was the making of Vreeland. After that Vogue beckoned, celebrity beckoned and finally a guest post curating at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Divided into easy to digest bites: childhood, vivacious twenties, lingerie business, magazine editor, family and finally The Met, The Eye Has to Travel moves quickly past, or perhaps glosses, over the more controversial elements of Vreeland’s life, such as her financial problems and questionable parenting. Yet in a way the film is actually more poignant for not dwelling on these points; Vreeland’s sons speak only briefly about their mother’s emotional detachment leaving a lot to be read by so little.
Diana Vreeland at her desk at Vogue. Despite being employed by Harper’s Bazaar since 1936, Vreeland left in 1962 because Vogue were offering a significant pay rise.
The section covering Vreeland’s term as special consultant to The Met is of particular interest to aficionados of cinematic costume. At the time (mid-1970s) she faced stiff opposition for ‘bringing Hollywood into the Museum’ but as usual weathered the storm. Vreeland had such dedication to her work it must have been impossible not to trust where she was going. Her idea that mannequins should be interacting in some way, e.g. in love, flirting or fighting, probably sounded loopy at first but retrospect makes perfect sense; if they weren’t having fun neither would the audience.
Although packed with interviews about Diana Vreeland from her colleagues, employees, family and friends, none of these recollections are dull – indeed it seems impossible to recall anything about Vreeland that is not worth repeating. The most telling anecdote comes from Ali MacGraw who started her career as Vreeland’s assistant. Vreeland returned from lunch one day and tossed her coat at MacGraw who instinctively threw it back (“like volleyball”). Vreeland’s response? “That is the rudest girl I have ever met!” Still, MacGraw kept her job implying that Vreeland took pleasure in such interactions. Vreeland was not an overly complex character deep down; staying in her company simply meant keeping her interested – constantly.
The Eye Has to Travel incorporates an inventive final shot that sums up its fantasy obsessed subject to a tee. For Diana Vreeland reality was merely the starting point on a far more delicious journey, the best of which is captured here in this excellent documentary.
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is released in the UK on 21st September.
© 2012, Christopher Laverty.