Film Review – Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
Truth is a slippery thing; it can be subjective based on the viewpoints of both the storyteller and the listener. A dry recitation of the facts may entirely miss the point, where a bald-faced lie can get to the heart of the matter. We tend to think of the people around us as living life from one moment to the next, with the person we see being the reflection of those events. But what if the personalities we engage with are more constructed than that? What if we see only what other people want? Movies are pieced-together visions that are carefully put together to control what the viewers think and feel. Personalities are more naturalistic representations, right? Maybe. But in the case of Diana Vreeland, definitely not. The new documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, and Frédéric Tcheng, tells the story of a life carefully constructed for maximum excitement, beauty, and impact.
Born in 1903 in Belle Époque Paris, Diana Dalziel was never intended to be a New York working-woman. Emigrating to the United States as a child, she spoke no English and had no interest in American schooling until her parents enrolled her in a Russian ballet school. She danced her way through the early 1920s, when she met and married banker Thomas Vreeland. They and their two sons left New York for London in 1929, where they would stay until 1937, when they would return to New York due to Thomas’s job. Seen dancing at a party in one of her lovely Chanel outfits, she was offered a job as a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar, and since her family could use the money, she said yes. She worked her way to the position of Fashion Editor, where she proceeded to revolutionize the fashion spread, and continued doing so until 1962. She then moved to Vogue magazine, where she served as Editor-in-Chief until she was fired in 1971. At this point in her career, she was offered a position as a consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She died in 1989, at the age of 86. These are the facts of her story, and they are mildly interesting, but they need a little spice to make them fascinating: a little makeup, perhaps?
Diana Vreeland is interesting—not just because she was a powerful working woman in an era when a woman’s impact outside of the home was limited—but because she is the one who brought fantasy and artifice into American homes on a regular basis. Up until her tenure at Harper’s Bazaar, ladies magazines had some emphasis on fashion, but focused more practically on homemaking. She threw all of that out the window and centered the magazine on the fashion spread. No longer would fashion be viewed as a lovely, but utilitarian aspect of the magazine. It was now a way to present an image, create a mood, or heighten a fantasy. The fashion spreads became stories instead of just pictures, and the magazine articles started being about what people wished their life was like instead of helpful ideas for the life they already had. The magazines became more cosmopolitan, and the well-informed woman could, in her hopes at least, become more beautiful, more interesting, and more attractive for having read it. For good or for bad, this is Diana Vreeland’s legacy.
But is the movie any good? Well, it’s hard to delve too deeply into Diana Vreeland, because she was as carefully constructed as any of her fashion spreads. Never considered beautiful by her family, she took what faults she had, turned them into assets, and then strove to make her life the most interesting, exciting, wonderful experience it could be. It takes a certain amount of self-centeredness to pull off this kind of thing, and the interviews with her sons are loving, but honest about their wish to have had a more normal mother who was interested in what they were doing. The portrayal of Mrs. Vreeland (as everyone called her) is by necessity a surface one, because she so carefully controlled everything she did and said to project herself in a certain light. When asked questions about more personal or difficult subjects like her husband’s cancer, she shied away—in private, as well as in public. I felt a certain amount of frustration while watching this film because there was no opportunity to go deeper, but I can’t really blame that on the filmmakers.
Stylistically, the film is a little uneven, and suffers from a boring first act. Things do pick up, but are hampered by a particularly annoying voiceover of an actress portraying Mrs. Vreeland. She’s got a very actory cadence, if you know what I mean, and it definitely takes away from the rest of the film. This is not very cinematic (a lot of documentaries aren’t), but it works, and it’s interesting. I learned quite a bit about a woman who shaped the future of fashion magazines and our continuing attitudes about clothing and style.
Final Grade: C+