The legendary fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland once said, “The only real elegance is in the mind; if you’ve got that, the rest really comes from it.” Her legendary elegance changed fashion forever, as her work, most notably at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, influenced not just what we wear and how we wear it, but the way we think. Her grandson, Alexander Vreeland, has recently put out a book that captures the weight of her legacy, titled Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman: The Bazaar Years, 1936-1962. Recently, NeueHouse hosted a conversation between Vreeland and the inimitable Editor of W Magazine, Stefano Tonchi, where the two shared anecdotes and discussed Diana’s impact on the industry.
Stefano Tonchi: The book is entitled ‘’ because it is really a conversation about how modern Diana is, and how somehow everything she has done, almost a century ago, is still so present. On the cover it says ‘The Bazaar Years 1936-1962’, why did you choose this specific period?
Alexander Vreeland: My grandmother really had three periods: her Bazaar Years which were 26 years; 9 years as Editor and Chief of American Vogue; and 16 years at The Metropolitan Museum as a Special Consultant to The Costume Institute. When she was hired to join Bazaar by Carmel Snow she joined Alexey Brodovitch and together they formed the creative troika which led Bazaar to their finest years. Over the years my grandmother’s voice grew stronger and stronger, until, as she loves to say: “I was the one and only Fashion Editor”.
ST: It is interesting that she arrives at Bazaar, not as an intern or a young girl but as a mature woman. She had a family and had travelled the world. Her cultural background influenced her work a lot; there are many echoes of Europe and things that were happening at the same time in Paris, like Duchamp and surrealism. She wasn’t afraid to be bold and unconventional. It’s very unusual at this time to think about editors and photographs leaving the comfort of the studio, but this is something Diana really loved, and she would pick incredible locations.
AV: She celebrated a certain kind of freedom and a certain kind of body language. A wonderful thing that my Grandmother did was that she understood a woman’s relationship with her own body. She was giving people a sort of permission to be comfortable and in touch with their bodies.
ST: We often take for granted that a woman can show her skin, her legs, her body but that was not the case at the time, and that kind of freedom was something unheard of, and sort of risky. She wanted to reflect reality and the changes that were going on; many women were called to do men’s jobs and wear men’s clothes. She brought those changes into the magazine, as well as things like airplanes that were just becoming commercialized in those years.
AV: There was certainly a sort of consciousness of saying we are at war and this is part of the reality so let us not forget it. And still it can still be beautiful.
ST: Diana’s idea of beauty was unconventional and revolutionary in many ways. In terms of models, for example, she was always looking for a personality behind the face as oppose to someone who is simply pretty. It was about women with incredible characters.
AV: She loved to use Lauren Bacall. She wanted people who were curious and passionate and had a real spark in their eyes.
ST: Did Diana always feel comfortable with her own body?
AV: You know she wasn’t a great athlete and she had no interest in that, she wasn’t extremely body conscious, but she was always healthy.
AV: This was 1961, it was the first picture of President Kennedy in the White House and it was published in Harper’s Bazaar. Today we often see Presidents in fashion magazines, but in 1961 this had never happened before so it was very controversial.
ST: Did your grandmother know the Kennedys?
AV: My father was very friendly with Jackie in High school. There is a wonderful letter that Mrs Kennedy wrote to my Grandmother in 1960 and she started off: “Dear Mrs Vreeland. I don’t know if Jack is going to win the election but if he does I would really like your advice on what to wear and could you give me some pointers. But if this comes up I am going to deny we ever had this conversation because Jack will think that I am jinxing the election…”.
Portraits of Stefano Tonchi & Alexander Vreeland: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal
Images courtesy of ‘Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman: The Bazaar Years 1936 – 1962’, published by Rizzoli October 2015