That Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was the high priestess of fashion through much of the twentieth century is persuasively demonstrated by this documentary from Immordino Vreeland (her granddaughter-in-law), Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng, which offers both a biographical sketch and an unrestrained celebration of her outsized personality and impact on the world of haute couture. It’s a vibrant, fast-moving portrait that employs a mass of archival material and an army of interviews—including substantial excerpts from the reminiscences Vreeland offered in conversation with George Plimpton in preparation for a written autobiography (here recreated by actress Annette Miller)—to excellent effect.
Your reaction to “The Eye Has To Travel,” though, may well be determined by how you wind up feeling about a woman who was driven, imperious, supremely self-confident, enormously successful but—one has to add—manipulative and extremely single-minded. As fashion editor to Harper’s Bazaar (1939-62) and managing editor of the American version of Vogue (1962-71), Vreeland was a tastemaker without peer, and later as consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute she transformed fashion exhibitions from dusty historical affairs to cultural happenings. Yet she seems to have utterly believed that—as she puts it in comments included here—life is artifice and style everything. That attitude, along with her habit of name-dropping with an abandon that can go to reckless extremes (as in a story about Lindbergh flying over her during his record-breaking trip across the Atlantic, which as is later pointed out, could not have been literally true), might make her seem less attractive than the gorgeous magazine spreads she presided over.
The same might be the case with the recollections of her childhood in Paris, with its rhapsodizing about “la belle epoque,” which she remembers as stunningly beautiful, only once in passing admitting that there might have been some decadence to the ostentatious display. Vreeland appears to be unaware—or unconcerned—that the great majority of people were living in considerably less sumptuous, agreeable circumstances than she enjoyed. But that’s of a piece with her easy assertion, in an interview with Dick Cavett also periodically excerpted here, that money isn’t just important, it’s vital—and anyone who thinks otherwise is rather dense. This is a woman, one has to admit, who viewed everything from an Olympian height of privilege.
Still, if you’re interested in the history of fashion and won’t be too put off by the thought of spending ninety minutes with a person whose persona—whether completely authentic or at least partially invented for dramatic effect—was not exactly sweet and approachable, this represents an excellent introduction to both Vreeland and the rarefied world in which she excelled. The amount of found material, whether in the form of footage, movie clips (as from “Funny Face,” in which she was parodied), stills and presentations of layouts from her magazines, is impressive. And it’s supplemented by the interviews. Those from the Plimpton recordings and television appearances hold pride of place, of course—even if you might think that she’s honing her answers to bolster the image she’s assiduously crafted for herself. But the others—with relatives, friends, collaborators, photographers (among them Richard Avedon), designers whose success largely depended on her support, models and discoveries (like Lauren Bacall and Marissa Berenson), and then-lowly aides (like Ali McGraw)—all contribute to the overall picture as well. The work of the directors (who also wrote the script, with Perlmutt and Tcheng also acting as editors) in not only locating all this material but assembling in into a nimble, easy-to-follow whole that touches upon Vreeland’s associations with such icons as Jackie Kennedy and Mick Jagger and Jack Nicholson without beating them into the ground, is laudable.
Whatever one might think of Vreeland, her influence on twentieth-century culture was large, and it’s celebrated here with affection, dedication and skill—but very little critical detachment.