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Diana Vreeland: A Life in Style

The Irrepressible Diana Vreeland

The Irrepressible Diana Vreeland

The Vreelands led a stylish life

The Vreelands led a stylish life

Vreeland's High Society Beginnings

No one person has had a greater influence on the American fashion scene than Diana Vreeland. Always chic, opinionated, and modern, Vreeland was an uncompromising visionary who guided thousands of American women through her editorial positions at Harper's Bazaar and Vogue magazines. This is the tale of the legendary “Divine Mrs. V”, at whose hand Americans were introduced to the bikini, animal prints, and the word “pizazz”.

The embodiment of pizazz herself, Diana Vreeland was born Diana Dalziel on July 29, 1903 in Paris. Her mother was American socialite Emily Key Hoffman, and her father a Brit named Frederick Young Dalziel. The Dalziel family relocated from Paris to New York at the start of World War I, where they quickly became darlings of society.

The young Miss Dalziel was no conventional beauty, but she always possessed an impeccable sense of style and moved with ease among the crème de la crème of high society. She married banker Thomas Reed Vreeland in 1924, and he remained the love of her life until his death in 1966. The newlyweds moved to Albany, New York following their marriage, and then to London with their two sons in 1929. While in London, Mrs. Vreeland opened a lingerie boutique near Berkeley Square, where her clients included the infamous Wallis Simpson. Vreeland was famous for saying that the best thing about London was Paris, and it was to the City of Lights where she traveled to shop for her wardrobe. Diana had met famous couture designer Coco Chanel in 1926, and it was Chanel's Paris shop that received most of Vreeland's business.

One of Vreeland's "Why Don't You?" columns for Harper's Bazaar

One of Vreeland's "Why Don't You?" columns for Harper's Bazaar

Vreeland Breathes New Life into Harper's Bazaar

In 1937, the stylish Vreelands returned to the United States where they lived in New York. Diana's outspoken nature, couture wardrobe, and perfect sense of style immediately drew attention from the city's socialites. In the 1930s, working at a fashion magazine was deemed a suitable occupation for the “ladies who lunch”, and so when Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow invited Vreeland to write a column for her magazine, Vreeland accepted the challenge. Never one to apologize for a love of fashion, Vreeland's column “Why Don't You?” breathed a breath of fresh air into the stagnant magazine and became a smash success.

In her “Why Don't You?” column, Vreeland offered offbeat and chic suggestions to readers. Perhaps her most famous offering was “Why don't you...wash your blond child's hair in dead champagne as they do in France?”. This exemplified the type of advice one was apt to receive from Vreeland, who always offered her readers ideas on how to lead a more stylish life. Despite the stratified society in which the Vreelands moved, Diana was never one to lose touch with the women who read Harper's Bazaar; her columns during the Great Depression of the 1930s were inspirational, but rarely did they advocate rushing out to make expensive clothing purchases.

Within six months of starting at Harper's Bazaar, Vreeland had been made Fashion Editor, the post which she retained until leaving for Vogue in 1963. Diana's voice was tremendously influential, but her salary never reflected it; after starting at a salary of $18,000 in 1937, she did not receive her first raise until 1959, when her pay was increased by $1000. Vreeland was fond of saying that all of the Hearst money (the publishers of Harper's Bazaar) must have gone into their San Simeon castle, because it certainly did not go to her. Despite her salary woes, Vreeland always managed to live a very fashionable life, and spent her time with society's uppercrust, such as C.Z. Guest, Cole Porter, and Cecil Beaton.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy showed that pink truly is the navy blue of India on a trip to Jaipur

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy showed that pink truly is the navy blue of India on a trip to Jaipur

"Pink is the Navy Blue of India"

Vreeland is best known for her manner of speaking in proclamations rather than ordinary sentences. The words which came from her mouth were always larger than life, and she had very strong beliefs on matter of style. Everyone from top photographers like Richard Avedon to magazine assistants to the American public came under the strong willed influence of Diana Vreeland. The fashion editor was famous for making passionate statements, such as “The bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb!” and “Pink is the navy blue of India.” which have become part of the American fashion lexicon.

Diana Vreeland's philosophy was that: “Elegance is innate. It has nothing to do with being well dressed. Elegance is refusal.”. She typically dressed in all black outfits every day, with perfectly manicured nails, and one or two very special pieces of jewelry. Her philosophy was one of understated elegance, even though she also loved things that were larger than life. Vreeland had a passion for red lacquer, dramatic florals, and animal prints in interior décor, as was seen in her Park Avenue apartment which she had celebrity interior decorator Billy Baldwin design entirely in shades of red. She directed him to create “a garden in hell”; abundant flowers layered with other prints, all in crimson. The apartment reflected Vreeland's bold personality to a tee.

Vreeland influenced not only readers of Harper's Bazaar, but also some very famous American fashion icons. It was she who introduced soon-to-be First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to fashion designer Oleg Cassini during the Presidential campaign. Mrs. Kennedy, another woman who adored simple elegance in clothing, had always favored French fashion designers for their chic style. However, when her husband took the Oval Office, it was made clear to her that the American First Lady should support American fashion designers. Thus began her relationship with Cassini, upon Diana Vreeland's suggestion.

"Think Pink" musical routine from "Funny Face" - inspired by Vreeland

Vreeland Becomes Style Icon & The Beginning of the End at Harper's Bazaar

The stamp of Diana Vreeland could be seen all over Harper's Bazaar during her tenure there. She had an appreciation for the fresh and unique, whether it was a garment or a face. The one thing which she detested was anything “common” in fashion. The flamboyant fashion editor made such a mark that she was even represented in Hollywood films. The most famous of these is the character Maggie Prescott, played by Kay Thompson of Eloise fame, in the 1957 movie Funny Face. Starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, Funny Face tells the story of the powerful fashion editor Prescott, based on the irrepressible Vreeland, who wants to discover the next big fashion trend. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is the musical number “Think Pink”, in which Kay Thompson playing Prescott directs her editorial staff to “think pink!”. It captures the exuberance of Vreeland perfectly.

Despite her influence and fame, not all was well for Vreeland at Harper's Bazaar in the late 1950s. When it was clear that Editor-in-Chief Carmel Snow was going to retire, Vreeland wanted her job. After twenty years at the magazine, Diana believed that she was the natural choice to succeed Snow, but the outgoing editor disagreed. Snow informed the powers-that-be at Harper's Bazaar that while Diana Vreeland was a “brilliant fashion editor”, they should not consider making her the heir to the throne. Vreeland was ultimately passed over for the promotion, and Snow's niece Nancy White was installed as the new Editor-in-Chief.

Vreeland absorbed the slight at Harper's Bazaar, and kept her post there for several more years. When the top job at Vogue magazine opened up, however, she gladly made the jump to a publication which would allow her to ascend to the Editor-in-Chief position. When Vreeland began her tenure at Vogue in 1963, her effect on the magazine was much like the new life that she breathed into Harper's Bazaar over two decades earlier. The magazine entered the 1960s staid and stagnant, but Vreeland quickly brought it up to date. At the time of her hiring, Time magazine praised Diana Vreeland as a “flamboyant, energetic tastemaker”, going on to proclaim her the “most fabled, venerated, and respected backstage force in the world today”.

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1968 cover of Vogue featuring Lauren Hutton, one of Vreeland's discoveries

1968 cover of Vogue featuring Lauren Hutton, one of Vreeland's discoveries

Vreeland Brings Fresh Ideas to Vogue Magazine

Despite her claims that nothing would change under her leadership, Vreeland's appointment to the top spot at Vogue heralded big changes in the magazine's appearance. Her models were more feminine, the photographs more sexy, and the entire attitude of the magazine larger. Vreeland was enthusiastic about the jet set and world travel, though she herself rarely left New York. She introduced the idea of the fashion editorial as a work of art to the pages of Vogue. Under her guidance, photographers and models traveled the globe taking pictures that were as much about art as fashion. These vibrant and outrageously expensive photo shoots took place in exotic locales like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Vreeland never worried about the cost of her fabulous editorials, but was notoriously particular about the photographs. Many a photographer lived in fear of her reaction to the end results of the latest trip to Africa or some other far-flung destination.

Diana loved the vitality of the 1960s and its youthful spirit. She had no problem embracing the new and quirky. For a woman who had never been conventionally pretty, the attitude of the 60s was affirming. Appreciation for individuality and uniqueness was at an all time high, especially following the conformity of the 1950s. Vreeland discovered youthquake star Edie Sedgwick, and reveled in putting faces with a unique appeal on the cover of Vogue. Lauren Hutton and Ali McGraw were two of Vreeland's favorites during her tenure at Vogue.

In her role as tastemaker for the American public, Vreeland championed enduring trends like skinny pants, sleeveless dresses, thong sandals, and animal prints. She did not just report fashion trends, she created them. It was Vreeland's belief that the role of a fashion magazine was to give readers a point of view. Over her decades in fashion, she came to realize that most people did not have their own perspective when it came to style, and that they wanted someone to give them clear direction. With her innate sense of what was chic, Vreeland was in the perfect position to be the fashion leader the public desired in her position as Vogue's editor-in-chief.

Vreeland with one of the exhibits she curated for the Costume Institute in 1973

Vreeland with one of the exhibits she curated for the Costume Institute in 1973

From Vogue to the Costume Institute

Despite what she did for the magazine, Diana Vreeland's tenure at Vogue was not long lasting. After only eight years as editor, in 1971, she was abruptly fired. The reasons have never been entirely clear, although her passion for enormously costly editorials may have been part of the cause. Losing her dream job at Vogue was a terrible blow to her, one which her husband could not cushion, as he had passed away in 1966. Vreeland handled the setback much in the same way she did the death of her husband: with a determination to remain moving forward in a positive direction.

The next phase of Diana Vreeland's career in fashion came in shortly after her dismissal from Vogue. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was looking for a consultant for their Costume Institute. A chat with C.Z. Guest was all the directors needed to realize that Vreeland was exactly the person they needed. After all, who knew fashion better than she? Not to mention, she had all the right personal connections in New York society to get the city's fashion doyennes to allow the Met to display their fabulous haute couture in the Costume Institute.

The woman who has been called “The Last Word in Style” was just what the Costume Institute needed. Diana Vreeland ended up exceeding the wildest dreams of the Metropolitan. Not only did she manage to persuade the socialites to lend or donate their couture treasures to the Costume Institute (who in their right mind would dare deny her?), but she ended up creating a number of special exhibitions, among them: “The World of Balenciaga” (1973), “Hollywood Design” (1974), “The Glory of Russian Costume” (1976), and “Vanity Fair” (1977).

As in all her endeavors, the legendary Vreeland brought her own unique vision to her work at the Costume Institute. Tradition held that gowns and other articles of clothing were to be displayed in an historically correct manner, but Vreeland cared not one bit for curatorial tradition. Always one to appreciate the new, she styled the mannequins in her exhibits in a way that was “now”, not “then”. Vreeland did not concern herself over minor technicalities like matching accessories to the time period of the garment; she wanted each display to look spectacular. If that meant a dress from one decade was matched with shoes not invented at that time, that was fine with her. Vreeland's retort to such complaints was that if those shoes had been available back when the dress was new, surely the wearer would have chosen them. End of story. Diana Vreeland firmly believed that the purpose of a museum was to educate and inspire, not to spoon feed things to the public in the manner that they expected.

Vreeland in her Billy Baldwin designed "Garden in Hell" apartment

Vreeland in her Billy Baldwin designed "Garden in Hell" apartment

Stylish to the End

By the mid-1980s, Mrs, Vreeland's health began to fail. Although she was officially on the staff of the Costume Institute until the time of her death in 1989, by 1984, her hours spent at the museum had begun to decline. As she became more frail, Vreeland spent less time out in public and more time within the confines of her glamorous Park Avenue apartment, until she was only seeing a select group of close friends. In a remarkable fashion that only a woman as spirited as Diana Vreeland could have managed, she hosted dinner parties in her apartment which she attended only by telephone. As her guests assembled at the dinner table, Diana would join in the conversation by talking on the phone in her bedroom to an extension in the dining room. Eventually, she grew so ill that she received no visitors, except her dearest friends such as socialite C.Z. Guest, designer Oscar de la Renta, André Leon Talley (of Vogue), and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

When Diana Vreeland died on August 22, 1989, the fashion world lost the woman of whom photographer Richard Avedon said, “She was and remains the only genius fashion editor”. Her inimitable style taught American women how to have style of their own, and how to embrace their own uniqueness. Most of all, what the Divine Mrs. V shared with women was her personal credo: “Don't just be your ordinary dull self. Why don't you be ingenious and make yourself into something else?” Which is exactly what she did.

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vintage parade from on March 18, 2010:


therese on March 03, 2010:

where are our "grandes dammes" today?

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