Ballet Shapes a Style Icon
The secret ingredient in the making of Diana Vreeland
I know what prompted me to write this. What I don’t yet know is where it will take me. … I wrote back in January of this year.
When I think about why I got started on writing this piece in the first place, I immediately know it’s because I was drawn to the story of this unusually creative luminary in the tapestry of our culture.
Yes, Diana Vreeland is an undeniably unique figure in our history who has gifted us with the visual and tangible jewels of her imagination, inspiring countless souls around her and infusing life into our societal institutions.
But what is most interesting is how it all got started. What captures my attention is the soil of Diana’s upbringing… and how this spirited girl in danger of being broken by her own mother and a world she did not belong to, got the strength and spark to become the force that we know of today as Diana Vreeland.
This was the very question on George Plimpton’s mind during his ’80s interviews with the iconic fashion editor: “How does one become Diana Vreeland?”
“I certainly didn’t learn anything in [traditional] school. My education was the world…” she confesses gleefully.
Vreeland proceeds to tell her biographer that her ‘gypsy’ family settled in New York when she was about 10, at which time her parents enrolled her in an all-girls private school called Brearley, where she lasted only “3 weeks”, she slips — “3 months, months!” she corrects her wishful thinking:
Really, they kept me there out of kindness to my parents, who obviously didn’t know what to do with me, cause I didn’t know any English… wasn’t allowed to speak French, and I had no one to talk to, and started to stutter, and the whole thing became really very serious… stuttering is quite a serious thing.
And then one day I went to a Russian school, and then I was happy, and that’s the only school I was ever happy in because all I did was dance. And it was a great education.
In fact, it is cited that Vreeland’s education was with one of the great ballet masters of Imperial Russia, dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine. The young socialite born as Diana Dalziel even performed in Russian prima Anna Pavlova’s “French peasant dance” called “Gavotte” at Carnegie Hall.
“I was dancing, that’s all I cared about,” she tells Diane Sawyer in an interview (circa 1980s) when the reporter asks her what she was like in her teens.
As it did in her formative years, again ballet enters Diana’s life playing a critical role in the development of her Identity — her self-image, confidence, the construction of her relationship with the world. Ballet allows her to get in touch with who she really is… and apparently helps to repair significant social anxieties that lead to a great scare surfacing through her speech.
Short version: Diana uses ballet to build the basis of her Identity.
ROOTED IN BALLET
Diana was born in the beginning of the 20th century in Paris, into the very center of an era we can only cinematize these days, known as “The Belle Epoque”, which she joyfully recalled to her biographer George Plimpton:
The first thing to do is arrange to be born in Paris, after that everything follows quite naturally.
I was brought up in a world of great beauties, a world where lookers had something to give the world. Paris was the center of everything. I saw the whole beginning of our century there. It was the Belle Epoque.
She was right of course, if for no other reason than the early 1900’s in the City of Lights were the perfect time and place to catch the emerging phenomenon known as The Ballets Russes.
But Diana got even closer to the action, as the company’s founder Sergei Diaghilev was a family friend:
I was always mad about the Ballets Russes. Mad about it! Diaghilev and his dancers… I remember him (Diaghilev) and Nijinsky coming over all the time. –– DV
“Did you realize at the time that you were lucky?” talk show host Dick Cavett asks her in a 1978 interview? “Oh, yes. We adored them… A great deal of my upbringing was in all those evenings when I saw a lot of fun.”
You could say that this was Diana’s first and most critical exposure to the world of great arts with ballet at its core, and this would influence the rest of her life – and reflect in her perception of it.
Not less importantly, it would prove a mighty force in counteracting the injured self image Diana grew up with based upon the traumatically difficult relationship she endured with her mother.
“I was always her ugly little monster… she used to say it’s too bad you have such a beautiful sister and you’re so extremely ugly…” Diana divulged to Plimpton in their conversations for her memoir.
Diana’s beauty was anything but skin-deep.
Diana had an intrinsic sense of aesthetic that shown in her ability to play with style which, no matter how eccentric or bizarre, always retained an attractive coherence, and flair of elegance.
It was her effortless poise juxtaposing her whimsically unconventional character, it was her irrepressible effervescence and quirky sense of humour paired with toughness and unstoppable focus in her approach to work and life.
She was a compilation of contradictions perfectly coheased together – something to the effect of Gary Cooper’s line to Audrey Hepburn in the film Love in the Afternoon, when Audrey’s character says: “I’m too thin! And my ears stick out, and my teeth are crooked and my neck’s much too long,” and Cooper’s persona replies:
Above all, there was a lightness of heart that prevailed over all of life’s other morose voices so convincing in their realness.
Perhaps this was a source of her unfailing lovability.
All in all, within her lived the spirit of a dancer… in some aspects akin to Audrey Hepburn, who also happened to study ballet in her early years and always credited her discipline, work ethic and other attributes (that we’ve all delighted in) to this artform — and that’s to say nothing of her profound love for it.
It was Diana’s real beauty that attracted her loving husband whom she adored and who made up for how she felt with her mom:
I never felt comfortable about my looks until I met Reed Vreeland. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, very quiet, very elegant… Reed made me feel beautiful no matter what my mother made me think.
SPIRIT OF ENTERPRISE
At the end of the 1920s Diana and her husband moved to London, where she learned many things including the language, and where she was now closer to her precious, native Paris which incited her passion for fashion and gave her Coco Chanel.
I learned everything in England. I learned English, but of course the best thing about London is Paris… The clothes! That’s where I really learned about fashion. No one had a better sense of luxury than Coco Chanel… She would always fit me in her private atelier, we were very close, you know. –DV
Diana understood beauty and with her enterprising mind, nothing could keep her from her first business venture, a lingerie boutique in London attracting distinguished clientele such as Wallis Simpson, soon to be known as Duchess of Windsor.
Back in New York, Diana’s style and moves on the dance floor of The St. Regis famously got her noticed by Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief and Board Chair, Carmel Snow. Diana’s confession of never having worked a day in her life did not detract from Snow’s confident decision to hire based upon the impression the young socialite made at the 5-star Manhattan hotel — that was her resume.
And Mrs. Snow was right on because Diana was off and running in her new role that fit like a glove:
It hadn’t crossed my mind to work… But I loved it, loved it! I was so mad about working in those days… –DV
IMAGINATION & RHYTHM
I think your imagination is your reality… Only what you imagine is real. — DV
Diana’s early years with the Ballets Russes and her education in classical dance no doubt infused her world with imagination, which she in turn infused into everything she did.
Everything! …including her very own molding process. After all, it was Diana’s foundation in dance that enabled the upper-crust misfit to find her place in an offbeat community decisively matching her eccentricity factor.
This in turn, prompted her to forge her own way in discovering inspirational influences and allowed her to open ever-new doorways to a sense of inventiveness, which fueled her inner visionary:
At the time I was 17… young snobs didn’t quite get my number. I was much better with …the odd ducks around town who liked to dance as much as I did… I didn’t care what anyone else said, I was never out of Harlem in those days.
The music was so great and Josephine Baker was simply the only girl you saw in the chorus line. All you could feel was something good coming from her. She had that… that thing … that pizazz.
Diana’s upbringing also ignited her understanding and sense of movement – not just in the physical arena – but applied to every act of creation.
American art writer and editor Ingrid Sischy reflects on Diana’s unique trait in the 2012 documentary about the multi-faceted icon:
It appears as though she didn’t edit herself, but of course she knew what had the sound of rhythm, she knew what had the sound of madness and surprise…
Her understanding of rhythm is huge …you see it with the sentences in magazines, where a magazine has to have a pause… a crash… a blast of color… a big headline.
This is something Diana knew perfectly well: ”I think any form of rhythm is absolutely essential…”
Another outgrowth of Diana’s ballet background which nourished her natural faculties, was her uncanny ability to connect. Diana could connect with people, things, places, ideas… enough to emanate, to even “become” them:
20th century fashion photographer Lillian Bassman attests to this unique trait, sharing a personal anecdote from her experiences with the unforgettable Mrs. Vreeland who once indoctrinated her on capturing the authenticity of the Japanese Kimono for a photo session:
… I used to love to get an assignment from her because she would get in front of the mirror and become the model that she wanted you to photograph. I remember I had a group of kimonos to do, she got in front of the mirror and showed me … she just took on the whole aura, you really felt that she was a geisha girl in front of that mirror.
— Lillian Bassman
MODEL OF STYLE
Diana’s embodiment of style was an essential part of her Identity as she explains to her biographer:
Style is everything George. It helps you get up in the morning, it helps you get down the stairs. It’s a way of life. Without it you’re nobody. And I’m not talking about a lot of clothes.
And what Diana learned in her schooling, she demanded and passed on to those she worked with. In her own words:
They [models] have to do a great deal for themselves. Their skin, their posture, their walk… their education.
Breakthrough model China Machado was in awe of the woman who gave her a deeper understanding of beauty:
She said, even if you were in closed shoes … your toenails have to be perfect. It was like every single detail, she knew …maybe you’d walk in a different way, I don’t know, but it was there, a special woman… a sense like that…
One can make fashion, or one is. Diana was fashion. It’s different.
Diana’s son recounts how the 1960 presidential candidate’s wife Jackie Kennedy turned to his mom for inaugural wardrobe advice, subsequently granting Diana’s magazine first photo opps of herself and newly elected husband as a token of appreciation to her fashion confidante.
Her son shares what Jackie wrote:
Everyone is wondering why we chose Harper’s Bazaar, and they invent a million reasons, and no one says the real one, which is you.
SEEING BEAUTY IN OTHERS
Diana was her own greatest creation.
With her foundation in classical ballet as a springboard for discovering her Identity, Diana was able to connect with who she really was in life — another words, she was able to access her innate qualities and express her truth.
Diana was able to mold herself into something beautiful and this phenomenon became a most precious gift she could then extend to others.
It came through in different ways, one of which was Diana’s ability to transform our so called faults into assets as Joel Schumacher points out:
She would push their faults… if they have a space between their teeth, make it the most beautiful thing about them… She celebrated Barbara Streisand’s nose and made it into a renaissance statue…
Mrs. V’s ability to see the essence of a person is something fashion empress Diane von Fürstenberg reveres:
She saw something, and that’s what was extraordinary about her. She saw things in people before they saw it themselves.
60s fashion model Penelope Tree says it in her own way:
She would fix her gaze on somebody and then they’d start to blossom.
Perhaps American writer and film critic Bob Colacello recounts it best:
She would say: “Bob, you’re not supposed to give people what they want, you’re supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet!”
Diana was all about showcasing individuality with a spotlight on distinctively unique personas, and that’s what came through in her magazines.
She shares this focus with George Plimpton:
You see, George… Ravishing personalities are the most riveting thing in the world. Conversation, peoples’ interest, the atmosphere that they create around them – these are the only thing worth putting in any issue.
Vogue always did stand for peoples’ lives. I mean, a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s the life you’re living in the dress. –DV
“In those days, it was a real story, that’s how you referred to a layout. You didn’t refer to it as just a series of photographs, it was a story…” Vreeland’s one-time muse Angelica Houston points out.
The strong face comes not only from the bone construction, but from the inner thinking. — DV
The passing of her cherished husband certainly took a toll, but as is usually the case with life-quakes, it also marked the ending of one period and the beginning of another.
By all accounts, her period of grief was deep, complex and not passive. In line with the deeply held beliefs constructing her character, she could not merely fold into what the material world dealt her.
And even her revolt at being separated from her beloved was expressed through style, when she wore white attire to the post funeral reception at her home.
“She then totally immersed herself in her work,” recounts her son.
Diana didn’t know it yet, but something new was knocking at her door, and this reflected at the magazine where things were no longer the same and the empress of Vogue was asked to step down from her throne.
It didn’t take long for her next calling to arrive.
I was only 70, what was I supposed to do, retire? And then one day I got a call from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. –DV
A NEW CHAPTER
A friend came up with the idea to create a special consultant position for Diana at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the funds to make this happen were quickly raised by friends who gave money to the museum’s Costume Institute.
The dormant, conservation-focused branch was about to go through a major revival!
“George!” Diana exclaims to her biographer: “I was so excited. Back in business! I could show everything I’ve loved all my life!”
With Diana’s arrival, the clothes were ready to leave the shelves and come to life in front of an audience anxiously awaiting their display at the fashion diva’s famous annual exhibitions running 6 months long.
“It was greater than a magazine, it was a magazine that was alive and 3-dimensional!” Vreeland’s grandson remembers.
From the get go, opening night was an international extravaganza for celebrities and elite socialites with guests lining up around the block.
But the success of this venture was owed not only to the former editor’s eye for beauty – it was, once again, all about connection and Identity.
Diana’s ability to connect and see the essence of others, enabled her to harmonize people creating a collective synergy, which translated into an uncommonly enjoyable atmosphere for all.
“This was really the party of the year, but all due to Diana because she knew how to mix the people,” astutely noted Carolina Hererra in DV’s 2012 documentary.
True to herself, Mrs. V deeply cared about reaching a universal audience through the language of fashion, a medium encompassing the entire bundle of culture, history, art and style.
“She wanted everybody to understand her shows. She used to say: ‘If an 8 year old girl from Harlem doesn’t understand what she’s looking at, I’m wasting my time…’ that girl was important to her…“ stressed Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador at Barneys in NYC.
Diana knew this in her bones because, along with all her other personas, she was that girl — and not just from her days in Harlem!
“She didn’t have a college education; she learnt history, art, literature, she learnt civilization through fashion and she wanted to share it,” conveys private librarian Kurt Thometz.
In fact, Diana’s ability to find sympatico with all human consciousness was about much more than her unconventional education.
TRANSCENDING DUALITY THROUGH DANCE
Her profile is a study in the entanglement of uncompromising opposites.
An oddball born into a life of privilege where she was condemned by her own mother, she was a socialite with a pass to the top tiers of an elite world where she found herself an awkward breed that never quite fit in.
Sophistication and simplicity pulsed through her in equal measure.
She exuded the graceful and grotesque, all at once.
She found herself at the bottom of the barrel amidst the crème de la crème.
In all evidence, the only thing that brought it all together for the Dalziel girl, surpassing all the hopeless contradictions, was the world of ballet.
Everything else came after.
Because all that followed was constituted on a system of order, coherence and integrity, a structure which built up a broken girl looking for her place in the world.
And this most precious knowledge lived in the innermost recesses of the fashion icon, piercing the very soul of her listeners, when they would hear her stories and be privy to traits that belonged to a superhuman race.
“We’d go back into her office and she would tell me the story of when she saw Nijinsky dance the “Specter of the Rose” and I even get a chill now talking about it. The description of the stage, and the window blowing open and Nijinsky flying through the room,” says Tonne Goodman, who began her career as special assistant to Diana Vreeland at The Costume Institute.
He didn’t leap up, he leaped across the stage, to the far end. We knew it was amazing. –DV about Nijinsky
So… where has this piece taken me?
I believe, a step closer to understanding Identity… its limitless creative expression, its enormous power to integrate people, ideas and qualities, and its timeless contributions. Just as the legacy of Diana Vreeland, it stays with us for eternity.
But there must be a framework for Identity to emerge.
An instruction manual of sacred knowledge on how to build up consciousness, passed down through the ages, from one generation to the next, from master to apprentice, classical ballet has the content and substance to provide the very framework that begets Identity.
Identity in turn gives rise to a more enlightened, elevated species of man that generates more than consumes, nourishes rather than depletes, and transcends a state of fear to one of radiant beauty.