"People don't know what they want until you show them," Steve Jobs once famously observed, unknowingly (I think) repeating the same sentiment from an unlikely source: Fashionland. "I think I always had a perfectly clear view of what was possible for the public. Give 'em what they never knew they wanted." That was Diana Vreeland, a one-time fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, curator at the Met Museum's Costume Institute and uber-famous editor in chief at Vogue during the 60s. During which time she penned an impressive collection of memos which have been collected and edited by her grandson Alexander in “Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years” (Rizzoli New York).
Documenting Grandma Diana actually seems to have turned into a family business. Alexander's wife, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, made the well-received “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel" (2012).
Interestingly, Vreeland wasn't brought up to be career-minded and never thought she would work. Rather, her "work" originally consisted of turning herself into a sought-after debutante who married one of the handsomest batchelors of the day, banker T. Reed Vreeland. "I never felt comfortable about my looks until I married Reed Vreeland," she once said. "I believe in love at first sight because that's what it was. I knew the moment our eyes met that we would marry."
And become an impeccably-dressed couple who lived for a time in Albany, New York and then in Europe. After returning to the US, she met the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar. After no doubt charming Carmel Snow with observations such as "Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. I'm a great believer in vulgarity - if it's got vitality. 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 began penning a column: "Why don't you..."Style and fashion suggestions included “Why Don’t You start a topiary garden of box or yew and clip the bushes into peacocks and poodles?” or “Why Don’t You give a new note to your sitting room by introducing a Victorian chair upholstered by Jensen in bright emerald green cotton, buttoned in white with little white chenille earrings on either side?” Of course this column for fellow rich people was silly, satirized in The New Yorker, even, but it revealed Vreeland's talent for knowing that people wanted personality. "I think part of my success as an editor came from never worrying about a fact, a cause, an atmosphere," she said later. "It was me - projecting to the public. That was my job."
Because she worked not for economic reasons but obviously for sheer enjoyment, it provides an interesting perspective on one of the early Supremium tribe members - which at first can seem superficial & uninteresting, like this memo, for example, dated February 1967: “Brigitte Bardot travelled halfway across the world to get married barefoot.…Mrs. George Harrison, wife of the Beatle, arrived on her honeymoon from Nassau to London Airport in a miniskirt — published by us last winter.…The tote bag is the thing.…The great trip into unknown rough country is the thing..."
However, beneath the easy/breezy society-girl armor beat the heart of a passionate woman who once noted that the only good life was the one you imagined & then fashioned for yourself. Fashioned, literally, in Vreeland's case. "I was always fascinated by the absurdities and the luxuries and the snobbism of the world that fashion magazines showed. Of course, it’s not for everyone. Very few people had ever breathed the pantry air of a woman who wore the kind of dress Vogue used to show when I was young. But I lived for that world, not only during my years in the magazine business but for years before, because I was always of that world — at least in my imagination."
Diana Vreeland MEMOS: The Vogue Years is now available.
[Note: both book links are affiliate links but I only link to stuff I like and would or will buy.]
Here is the podcast I recorded about this. Enjoy!
Music by Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott
Diana Vreeland quotes & photos via DianaVreeland.com.