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Diana Vreeland: Mother Of All Those Devils Who Wear Prada

Venice is dedicating a retrospective to one of the defining icons and arbiters of 20th-century fashion (and culture), Diana Vreeland. The influential and ever demanding editor of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue helped label clothing and luxury design among the high art forms.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Vreeland (rt) with a model before a photo shoot for Harper's Bazaar magazine (Richard Avedon/Palazzo Fortuny)

VENICE - Oh how she would have loved this exhibition in Venice, with its baroque and Oriental flavors, its aristocratic old European essence. For Diana Vreeland, happiness was sipping an espresso in St. Mark’s Square with Andy Warhol. When asked her opinion on jeans, she answered that it was the best-designed object in the world, save the gondola.

Until June 25, Palazzo Fortuny celebrates the woman who was the deus ex machina of fashion from the 1930s to 1980s, as a columnist and fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, as editor-in-chief of Vogue America, and as consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The most phantasmagoric clothes that were her sources of inspiration are on display -- for the first time in Italy -- in the exhibition “Diana Vreeland After Diana Vreeland.” There are clothes by Yves Saint-Laurent, such as the Mondrian dress, or those inspired by the Ballets Russes, all a part of modern women’s collective imagination.

There are the most maximalist works by Balenciaga, including a divine creation of green feathers that was owned by the American fashion icon Mona Bismarck. There are the 19th-century clothes by Worth and 18th century works lent by the Museo Mocenigo, the Venetian museum of fabrics and costumes.

Of course, some of the most amazing Schiaparelli and Chanel designs are featured, but so too is the cloak owned by the opera singer Maria Callas, who was Vreeland’s idol. There are Austrian imperial uniforms, and her own working outfits, two sober beige knit dresses by Givenchy.

"Bring me billiard green!"

The two professors who curated the exhibition, Maria Luisa Frisa of Venice’s Iuav di Venezia and Judith Clark of the London School of Fashion, say that the main goal is “to think about the role of the fashion curator and his or her way to bring clothes into museums, between the slow pattern of history and the dizzying patterns of the latest trend.”

Harold Koda of the Met, Akiko Fukai of the Kyoto Costume Institute and other experts spoke about this topic on a recent international panel. But the story largely begins with Vreeland, a fascinating animal who was famously unattractive and incomparably alluring at the same time, with her scarlet nails and massive bracelets by Kenneth Jay Lane.

She was the mother of all the future devils who wear Prada, a cosmopolitan woman who felt at home in Paris, London and New York, a descendant of George Washington and  banker’s wife.

There are many anecdotes about her life. Once she demanded a piece of fabric like the green of a billiards table, and refused all the options, like Alice in Wonderland’s mean Queen of Hearts. In the end, they cut up a real billiard table and brought her its fabric. But she rejected that too, saying she’d asked for “the idea of billiard-table green.” Another time, she ordered interior designer Billy Baldwin to create for her Park Avenue’s apartment a Hell’s garden, all red.

She was the first who brought in unconventional models from high society, like Benedetta Barzini, Edie Sedgwick, Françoise Hardy, Mia Farrow, and Catherine Spaak. She loved women with big noses. Barbra Streisand may just owe her career to Vreeland.

She wrote about her creative quirks in a column for Harper’s Bazaar titled «Why don’t you?» Why don’t you dress your daughter as a princess at a masked ball? Why don’t you use a giant shell instead of a bucket to keep your Champagne chilled? Why don’t you wear purple woolen gloves? Why don’t you tie black ribbons to your wrists? She died at 86, in 1989. Today, countless fashion magazines continue to turn to her ideas – and the best ones know how to apply her method.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Richard Avedon/Palazzo Fortuny


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La Stampa ("The Press") is a top Italian daily founded in 1867 under the name Gazzetta Piemontese. Based in Turin, La Stampa is owned by the Fiat Group and distributed in many other European countries.

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