New York Fashion Cool-Aid ® by Laurel Marcus

Diana Vreeland’s illustrious career could be compared to a three stage rocket. If, like me, you mostly remember her during stages two and three: as Editor-in-Chief at Vogue and as special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute, this book will amuse and inform you. Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman The Bazaar Years 1936-1962 highlights the beginning of her long career, one in which she has been credited as having created the role and position of magazine fashion editor. The Rizzoli book (released today) was edited by her grandson and trustee of her estate Alexander Vreeland.

Diana Vreeland (in or around 1938)
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In the 2013 book “Memos,” Mr. Vreeland  gave us a compilation of his grandmother’s interesting and at times peculiar missives written during her tenure at Vogue. This new book is a result of a fortuitous discovery: bound copies of the early magazine editions were found preserved in the attic of the Brewster, NY house that used to belong to his grandparents. These pages are brought to life along with commentary from several respected authorities including Bruce Weber, Glenda Bailey, Edward Enninful, Tonne Goodman, Inez van Lamsweerde and Stefano Tonchi.

1954: “Everything black and lacy”

In this book’s introduction, Mr. Vreeland  mentions Bazaar’s then EIC Carmel Snow, who, as the story goes, met Diana and her husband when they were out dancing at the St. Regis Hotel. She invited Diana to join her magazine, working with her and Bazaar’s art director Alexey Brodovitch. Commencing with 1939 when Diana first became editor, and going year by year, we get to see the magazine covers and then some of the inside pages with photos and editorial content. Early on there is a spread of her “Why don’t you…?” witticisms which she was particularly known for however most of this book showcases her talents for presenting amazing photographic tableaus as well as her ability to pinpoint what women wanted before they even knew they wanted it. As Inez & Vinoodh explain:

“What is really interesting is the composition and creativity that is going on. It is very worked out. She focused so much more on how to make a photo that is compositionally extraordinary than on ‘this is the dress, this is the shoe, this is the bag.’ It’s much more about making you dream than about showing the clothes.”

Here you will find the iconic Avedon photos of Dovima with Elephants (1958) as well as a photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Gleb Derujinksy’s photos with cheetahs, underscoring a motif of incorporating wild animals. Other themes include the three elements: Water is highlighted in “How to take a bath” and a later feature entitled “The Pleasures of the Bath.” There are many beach photos, models are perched on the edge of swimming pools or on the USS Tennessee battleship.

1943: Watching the paramarines while wearing a tweed suit
and topcoat from Bonwit Teller

The element of Air is represented with the use of actual female pilots as well as models posing with planes or parachutes, on swings, overlooking cliffs, bridges, balconies, skyscraper ledges, the Eiffel Tower or superimposed standing astride the roof of a bus. The element of fire is there as well, mostly in terms of how many models are shown smoking, a habit DV excessively engaged in as well. Fashions being displayed in these daring settings run the gamut from ball gowns to shorts, bathing suits including a tiny bikini in 1947 (five years before Playboy Magazine even existed), lingerie, coats and suits, hosiery, millinery and gloves. It’s interesting to note that much of the featured clothing would still be considered the height of chic today.

 “A celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Eiffel Tower with Mainbocher”

In contrast to the clothing, there are several features that would not be considered “ugly” in today’s world such as a 1940 spread featuring menswear shirting for women entitled “It’s a Man’s World.” It reads “Since men mean more than mathematics in the life of a college girl, it’s easy to trace their influence on feminine clothes.” There’s also a feature of a women standing in the sand wearing “a voluminous burmoose, just like an Arab’s…” which would be considered “cultural appropriation” today. In the spread “Pin Ups In Pants” the copy reads “The boys pin up the girls, and the girls pin up Frank Sinatra” which at least lends an equal opportunity aspect to all this “pinning up.” Interestingly, Glenda Bailey mentions Vreeland’s employment of many women photographers who might not have gotten an opportunity otherwise and states that in her own way Vreeland was a feminist. Throughout the pages we also get to see come of the then young celebrities that DV was fond of including the Hepburn sisters, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, the Duchess of Windsor, “new girl” Brigitte Bardot, and later Jackie Kennedy who Vreeland befriended. Kennedy consulted frequently with Vreeland for wardrobe advice as has been discovered through documented correspondence.

It’s 1945: legs have their day in the sun

Although many of the early covers feature illustrations rather than photographs, I enjoyed seeing one which showed a series of women wearing blue, green, red and yellow lipstick; very forward thinking and prescient. There is also an inside shoot of women with tinted “water color hair” featuring Helena Rubinstein’s color tint rinses; a precursor to today’s popular every-color-of-the-rainbow hair. Looking through this book one gets a true reflection of history albeit from a glamour perspective. WWII’s influence is definitely felt along with a 1945 cover featuring only the word “Victory.” I also loved seeing what designers and stores were mentioned, many of course, long gone, as well as the prices listed for these items; a $40 coat or suit. There is even a layout of clothing made from a Simplicity Pattern (25 cents and available by mail through Harper’s Bazaar’s Fashion Department)!

Since the focus of the book is on how modern Diana Vreeland was, there’s this. According to Stefano Tonchi: “She understood the modern woman, as Mrs. Vreeland was a modern woman herself. She led the life of a modern woman. This woman is independent, she smokes, she goes out in public, she loves the sun, she wears swimsuits, she does things herself; this is part of what defines the modern American woman.”

Interesting to note that the modern woman fought so hard for these vices only to have the health conscious postmodern woman eschew them.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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