Fashion and other lies | Or, how I started writing again

The Diana Vreeland documentary, “The Eye Has to Travel”, inspired me to write again because I felt conflicted after watching it. On the one hand I was inspired by her genius, her wanderlust spirit and her creativity. On the other hand, it emphasised the liberties fashion takes with the truth.

I didn’t intentionally stop writing, it just kind of happened. I think a lot of bloggers go through this. They just kind of forget what it was that they loved about their blog in the first place, or real life intervenes. For me writing became a routine, and a chore, rather than an opportunity to be creative. I started to feel like I was writing about things just for the sake of having something to upload and not because it was something that interested me anymore.

I was finding it increasingly difficult to find inspiration. I love fashion’s connection to history and culture, but I also love the art and theater of it. I like the ridiculous (and the un-wearable), the innovative and the shocking. I suppose it’s what consistently drew me towards Gareth Pugh, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and John Galliano. However, I started to feel uninspired, like it was all just a little bit too corporate and predictable for me. Friends that I’d graduated with knew their place in the industry. They knew that they wanted to be stylists, journalists or in PR/marketing and for a long time I just felt lost.

Unexpectedly, it was only after watching the Diana Vreeland film that I felt motivated again, which eventually led me to discover my masters course. I only watched the documentary because I felt like I should know more about her. Obviously I knew of her work as a columnist and later fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and editor-in-chief at Vogue. I wasn’t expecting her life to inspire and motivate me in the way that it did. It wasn’t so much her as an individual – I think she would be a daunting person to meet –  it was more the way she perceived the world.

Intimidating Funny Face editor-in-chief, Maggie Prescott, was inspired by Diana Vreeland.

The documentary predominantly focuses on Vreeland as a spellbinder, a storyteller and an exaggerator. She once said, “why not make a story more interesting?” Coining the term “faction” to explain her blending of real life and fiction. She created herself into the person she wanted to be, but she also moulded the world to fit into her reality.

Her authority on the world of fashion is undeniable, but her work and persona also reflect the popular culture of an entire century. Like faction, the images she put in her magazines reveal a mix of cultural history but with an added sense of fantasy. “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world,” she declared. She roused her audience to new heights, “If it’s not there in fashion, fantasize it,” she said.

Vreeland lived and worked in an era when travel was new and exciting. She had a flair for inducing wanderlust and captured it with legendary magazine spreads that transported audiences to faraway places at the dawn of the jet age. In a time when fashion magazine’s still covered articles on etiquette, baking recipes, and columns about “fitting in”, Vreeland’s copy stood out with exotic imagery of Egypt, Japan, Morocco and India (of which she once famously remarked, “Pink is the navy blue of India.”).

However, these representations were faction. She often loved the ideas of places and cultures more than the reality of them. In one of the film’s final scenes, Simon Doonan recounts an anecdote in which Vreeland confesses that she had not, and would not, travel to India because the idea of it could never live up to the fantasy in her mind. She, of course, summed up her stance best, “I really wouldn’t know anything about Russians,” she said. “What I love is Russia!”

“The Great Fur Caravan”, Vogue 1966. Photographer Richard Avedon.

“The Great Fur Caravan”, Vogue 1966. Photographer Richard Avedon

This attitude continued throughout her career when she became Special Consultant at the Costume Institute. Her famous exhibitions were undoubtedly glamorous and hugely popular but were subject to significant criticism, both at the time and since, due to historical inaccuracy. Art historian Deborah Silverman wrote an entire book on the subject, “Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland and the New Aristocracy of taste in Reagan’s America”. In it, Silverman denounces Vreeland’s exhibitions, she states: “While Mrs Vreeland’s practise of being what she calls ‘terrible on facts’, or ‘always exaggerating’, shaped her years of success as a bold and imaginative fashion magazine editor, her exercise of opulent fantasies as art museum historical exhibits is distressing and inappropriate”.

Exhibitions like The 18th Century Woman and The Belle Epoch, a period Vreeland notoriously romanticised, perpetrated myths that historians had long since dismissed. There’s an anecdote in the documentary with Harold Koda, who at the time was an intern, and then an assistant curator at the Costume Institute. Koda carefully researched the high wigs worn at court in the 18th century. After faithfully reproducing the hairstyle, Vreeland was disappointed and insisted that it was not high enough, so the wig was theatrically expanded.

He addresses the criticism that Vreeland’s exhibitions were grand and entertaining, but fell short on scholarship. He explained that it was more important to Vreeland that the museum visitors feel the era being represented, rather than merely learning about it. Vreeland said, “The public isn’t interested in accuracy – they want spectacle…I don’t want to be educated. I want to be drowned in beauty.”

I’ve only watched this film once, but I’ve thought about it a lot. Moving towards the start of my course, I’m inspired by the often juxtaposing ideas about fashion presented throughout the documentary: fact/fiction, editor/curator, frivolous/scholarly. Diana Vreeland was an exceptional person with an extraordinary life. She took liberties with historical and cultural facts but she challenged, and continues to challenge, the way we think about clothing, fashion and beauty – and that’s why I started writing again.

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