Once upon a time there was an ugly duckling. A girl was born in the prettiest city in the world, Paris, during an age when beauty was treasured and celebrated—the belle époque. But she was plain. Her own handsome mother constantly compared her (and not favorably) to her lithe little sister.

How does the story end?

If the girl in question is the late, great fashion empress Diana Vreeland, she devotes her youth to reinventing herself—and her life—to redefine how the world sees beauty. While she may not have become a swan, she became something much more opulent and grand. A peacock, perhaps.

“Peacocks, I always say, are unbelievably beautiful—but they’re vulgar.”

Vreeland herself embraced a bit of vulgarity in the name of excess, asserting, with confidence, “Exaggeration is my only reality.”

In the new documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, we get an insider’s look at the extraordinary woman who singlehandedly changed the worlds of fashion and publishing. Although Vreeland died in 1989, her influence is still to be found in the magazines she helmed for four decades, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, as well as on countless runways.

Affectionately directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of one of Diana’s grandsons, the movie allows the subject to tell her own story, through excerpts of interviews with the journalist George Plimpton. This narrative, deftly read by actress Annette Miller, is complemented by onscreen interviews with models, photographers, designers and celebrities. There is plenty of archival footage as well. But the most compelling pieces of the puzzle are the onscreen pages of Bazaar and Vogue. The fashion, settings, and lifestyle they evoke do not feel dated at all. They could easily appear in the magazines of today—a telling testament to Vreeland’s lasting mark.

Throughout her career, she celebrated the unusual, turning a blazing spotlight on features that might have prevented women from being photographed in the first place. Under her direction, Barbra Streisand’s famous nose, Lauren Hutton’s gap-toothed smile, and the strong features of Anjelica Huston, and Cher replaced the pretty mannequin models of years past.

Never one to discount her own accomplishments, Vreeland took credit for the successes of everyone from Streisand to Lauren Hutton to Mick Jagger. She advised Jackie Kennedy on appropriate inaugural dress. She urged a young designer to “Focus on appendages.” His name was Manolo Blahnik.

One part of Vreeland’s story does feel a bit dated. A powerful career woman before her time, she chose work over her role as a wife and mother. With no apology whatsoever, Vreeland discounted her own assumedly painful childhood. Her now elderly sons, Tim and Frecky, admit to feelings of neglect. We get the sense that she perceived her mission as greater than that of raising a happy family. She had to tell the world about style. Decades before it became a pop culture credo, she was preaching: “Live out loud.”

And she certainly did. From the roaring twenties of Harlem to late nights at Studio 54, Vreeland didn’t let age—any more than her lack of conventional prettiness—get in her way. Her story is filled with larger-than-life encounters. Did she really ride with Buffalo Bill? Did she dance with Josephine Baker? Did Lindbergh fly over her upstate New York home? Did the lingerie she sold to Wallis Simpson bring down the British Empire?

Who knows? Then again, who cares? When queried about fact vs. fiction, Vreeland would admit only to a touch of “faction.” If you can reinvent your appearance, why not your life story?

With Vreeland, there was no place for the mundane. She abhorred the ordinary. Style—in clothing, in makeup, in life—was paramount.
“You’ve got to have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody.”

At the movie theater last Saturday (an art house near Cambridge’s M.I.T.), I noticed two very striking women. They were about 60 years old and dressed in “outfits”—meticulously choreographed ensembles in which skirts, shoes, handbags, and hats (really) combined to express what one could only describe as “style.” I wondered whether they were in the fashion industry, if they dressed that way every day, or if their appearance was an homage to Vreeland. I suddenly felt a little underdressed and found myself wishing I had added a few bangles and some rouge prior to leaving the house.

Vreeland’s story is remarkable, and the documentary is a thorough and engaging portrait. I found the film particularly relevant as I come to terms with my own changing appearance. When we’re in our teens and twenties, being pretty is a fairly important objective (for some people, it’s a full-time job). But, as we grow older, the physical trappings of age don’t jibe with society’s idea of pretty. We, like Vreeland, have to redefine our own definition of beauty.

From her youth until her death at age 86, Vreeland celebrated style, not prettiness. There was a theatricality to her life that we can strive for, regardless of age or bone structure.

She may never have been pretty. But she was pretty amazing.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel – Official Trailer

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