Diana Vreeland looked like Louise Bourgeois, but shared the inventive boldness of a René Magritte. She gave interviews with the sharpness of Bette Davis, or the causticness of ’90s Madonna, and like her, set out to make herself the most popular girl in town. A longtime fashion-mag editor (Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue) and overall glamour icon, she never apologized, intellectualized, or tried to make sense of the alluring power of the beautifully crafted image; instead, she surrendered to it. For Vreeland, nature was a form of laziness, artifice was the fabric of life, toenails had to be painted even if you were wearing boots, and a world without leopards, well, who would want to live in it? The film Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is a mesmerizing trip into this world of unrepentant relinquishing to luxury. But while Vreeland’s luxury may often take the shape of $10k Mondrian day dresses and impromptu trips to Paris, it’s actually a kind of ethos. Vreeland’s ode to the artificial, the outlandish, and the visually arresting is rooted in an existential restlessness and optimism that could just as easily inhabit a mink coat, a gesture, or a gaze. “I mean, a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s the life you live in the dress,” she quips at one point. The film captures Vreeland’s perhaps unwitting philosophical integrity just as much as it drowns us in the exuberance of her work.
Of course, all the pizzazz (her favorite word) ultimately lies on a bed of defense mechanisms against all things human, or natural, such as love, children, and cancer. We learn that Vreeland was as invested in her work, intent on giving people “what they don’t know they want,” as she was about avoiding the vulnerable entrapments of family life. As if consumed by her own drag character (the glamour-hungry Octavia St. Laurent of Paris Is Burning comes to mind), she seems driven by such an irresistible need to perform that the very notion of truth becomes too boring to be bothered with. In a way, Vreeland embodies the seductive danger inherent to the very images she concocted, a kind of sweet poison that can put critical thinking to sleep, and wants it to. Overcome by the magnificence of the cuts, the lines, and the colors, and the stripes and the fur, who’s to question the politics of the bodies modeling, and sewing, the artifacts?
When Vreeland says that “Every girl in the world should have geisha training,” or that after the war there was peace, but mostly the bikini, her delivery is so campy, her personality so charismatic, her demeanor so excessive, you not only accept it, you want in. Vreeland’s version of luxury, still purchased at the expense of female bodies, never feels reduced to the crass commercialism of today’s Vogue or the hollow affectations of an Anna Wintour. This is luxury of the Parisian tradition: You look good, but you know where you’re going. You look good because you know where you’re going. And you’ve read Mallarmé. Vreeland’s luxury is a way of life that acknowledges and legitimizes the extraordinary in both success and failure, just not in mediocrity. Her advice to her sons is to be either the first in their class or at its very bottom, just not in the middle. We could call this an anarcho-queer spirit with an appetite for profit (“Listen, I’m as practical as Bloomingdale’s,” she says). Whatever it is, it’s contagious.