An appreciation of Diana Vreeland: The scarlet woman changed the way we value fashion itself

Vreeland was the woman for whom the title "fashion editor" was invented during her tenure at Harper's Bazaar in the Thirties

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Diana Vreeland once said of style that "all who have it share one thing: originality". She would know. On the one hand she was a true original, and on the other she was one of the most stylish people who ever lived.

Born Diana Dalziel in September 1903 in Paris – a fact she felt was vital to her stylistic development – Vreeland was the woman for whom the title "fashion editor" was invented during her tenure at Harper's Bazaar in the Thirties; whose editorship of American Vogue in the Sixties has become legend; and whose stewardship of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, in the Seventies, helped transform fashion into something with permanence and gravitas. Vreeland changed the way we value fashion itself.

That perhaps explains why Marc Jacobs, the master of the moment, wrapped the venue of his autumn/winter 2015 New York Fashion Week show in a reimagining of Vreeland's Manhattan apartment. Chintzed to the hilt by famed interior decorator Billy Baldwin, and in the same shade of Chinese-lacquer red with which Vreeland varnished her nails and rouged her cheeks – and often her earlobes – she dubbed it, gleefully, a garden in hell. "And that's what fashion is," said Jacobs, backstage, after a show that included models with Vaselined hair, with spit-shiners backstage to polish the knee-high patent boots about to go down the runway (unshiny shoes, said Vreeland, are the end of civilisation).

Jacobs has clearly taken note of her memos. These legendary missives, issued while she was editing Vogue, declared her loves – pearls, freckles, serpents – and her pet peeves – tacky shoes and hair "dipped in salad oil". He isn't alone in using her for inspiration.

Vreeland featured widely this season. Her favourite animal prints appeared at Dior and Miuccia Prada's Miu Miu. Her signature shades of red and black dominated the shows. Fausto Puglisi dedicated his collection in part to her, too, alongside stray cats, Sicilian baroque and Madonnas (a combination of which Vreeland would undoubtedly have approved).


It was Jacobs' paean though, which was the most heartfelt. It was packed with sartorial echoes of her style. She was an unmistakable figure after all: the Kabuki make-up; the barbaric jewellery; a face described as resembling a "cigar-store Indian" or, by Cecil Beaton, as "an authoritative crane". All of which was framed by hair dyed a shade of blue-black so concentrated she slept on an ebony-coloured satin pillow.

Some of the influences Jacobs had softened, a Schiaparelli-pink suit turned into a dusky rose, and a satsuma-orange skirt became a peachy hue. And there was also plenty of black, faded to grey. "Black is the hardest colour in the world to get right – except for grey," Vreeland once said. She gave great quotes.

Thinking about the autumn/winter 2015 season, I kept seeing Vreeland's influence. The best shows all had a touch of her . The fashion she embodied was all there: the extreme, the arch, the utterly, unashamedly exaggerated.

The film director Josef von Sternberg dubbed his (wildly inaccurate) 1934 biopic of Catherine the Great – The Scarlet Empress – as "a relentless excursion into style". I imagine Vreeland must have adored that overblown, sensory overload of a movie, given her love both of Russia (which she pronounced "Rush-hour") and of "faction" (a combination of fact and fiction with which she wryly described her autobiography). It is a phrase that neatly summarises Vreeland's approach.

"Fashion," she once said, "must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world." And with her it always was.