Style is not fashion, as the late legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland used to proclaim; fashion comes and goes, but style goes on forever. Much like Vreeland herself.
As former editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, and fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar for 26 years before that, Vreeland was prone to pronouncements and while not everything she said was to be taken seriously (“Why not wear purple velvet mittens with everything?”), her sensibility was of the highest caliber. In order to absorb style, Vreeland felt, the eye has to travel. It helps if the mind travels a bit, too, and this iconic tastemaker was a perfect example.
What becomes a legend most is the current documentary “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” currently playing in local movie theatres. Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of Diana’s grandson, this movie explores the relentless work ethic of Vreeland, who was constantly presenting visions of life and then providing the inspiration to push people toward them. Naturally, much energy in the movie is devoted to Vreeland’s reshaping of modern fashion while she was at Vogue. But her story doesn’t end there. After she was fired at Vogue, she restyled the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the glamorous and respected department that it is today. Well, she tells the camera, what she was going to do? She was only 70 years old, so she certainly wasn’t going to retire.
Viewers won’t learn much about Vreeland’s personal life from the movie—she tended to shy away from it even with her own autobiographer, but thanks to vast amounts of interview tapes and public appearances, Vreeland almost jumps off the screen with her vitality. And her influence is amazingly long-reaching: she discovered Lauren Bacall; she advised Jacqueline Kennedy on what to wear to the inauguration; she created the term “youthquake” for the seismic cultural split of the 1960’s; and she stirred fashion and celebrity together into a frothy cocktail for public consumption long before there was a Studio 54 or a People magazine. But, also, much of what we wear today can be traced directly back to Vreeland’s influence, such as jeans, bikinis, and chandelier earrings.
This kind of immediacy is what makes fashion documentaries so engaging. Thanks to reality TV shows like Project Runway, we have all gotten used to a new kind of bodice ripping drama. But after a particular television series ends, so little of its influence lingers in our lives. That is the gap that fashion documentaries fill. Documentaries aren’t contests; instead they offer us distilled moments of passion and accomplishment. They give us points of view, and, after all, that’s what style is all about.
Besides “The Eye Has to Travel,” other fashion documentaries (available on DVD) worth watching include:
*Bill Cunningham New York (2010). No one captures the whirl of the moment better than New York fashion photographer Cunningham. He is an expert at seeing street fashion, the excitement behind the scenes at the big tent runways, and the personalities.
*Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton (2007). This is a genuine adventure, following the ever-expressive Jacobs through multiple shows, including his as the first American creative director for the haute French firm Louis Vuitton.
*The September Issue (2009). After Vreeland, current Vogue editor Anna Wintour seems a bit like a dormouse: small and quiet. She certainly lacks the larger-than-life vigor of Vreeland. Still, her chilly oversight of the largest issue of Vogue ever published is fascinating.
*Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008). Shot over the course of two years, this film gives viewers unlimited access to one of the great Italian designers, and glimpses of a level of glamour probably never to be reviled again.
*Unzipped (1995). Mayhem, darling, utter mayhem. Director Douglas Keeve, then boyfriend of Isaac Mizrahi, follows Mizrahi through his plans for his 1994 collection. It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s so good that Keeve and Mizrahi broke up over the end result.
*The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Not a documentary, more the movie version of a roman a’ clef, this is a classic film from a bestselling book some say was based on a young woman’s experience as a personal assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Starring Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Anne Hathaway, Adrian Grenier and Emily Blunt.