Before The Devil Wears Prada or Ugly Betty, there was Diana Vreeland: the woman who “created the fashion editor.” She was the Anna Wintour of our grandparents’ generation, taking the helm at Vogue in 1963 after a 25-year tenure at the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar.
The biographical documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel aims to paint a portrait of the fashion icon using film clips, magazine pages and recordings from personal interviews. The first film by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of Diana Vreeland’s grandson, The Eye Has to Travel is nothing if not a sentimental look back at fashion’s glory days: the Belle Époque, the Roaring ’20s and the youth revolt of the 1960s. The viewer is taken on a chronological journey through Vreeland’s lifetime, illustrated by her beautiful, cutting-edge magazine covers and editorial spreads. Watching the film is almost like opening an archive of yesterday’s styles, flipping from page to page, intermittently being swallowed up in a fantasy of feathers, furs and pearls.
For the fashion-obsessed, some of the footage is a dream come true, like being taken inside private fittings with Coco Chanel. Scanning the trajectory of dresses, jewelry and swimwear trends, The Eye Has to Travel boasts a thrilling ride full of fancy. The film depicts the lightheartedness of the industry while recognizing its greater significance.
But the film might fall flat for those less invested in the historic world of fashion, as its purely sequential arrangement fails to give the story dimension.
If today’s editor in chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, came across as an ice queen in the 2009 Sundance documentary The September Issue (a film to which comparisons are bound to be made) Vreeland shines with a theatrical voice and an electric personality, bringing life to the screen just like she did to magazine pages years before.
But, as in many fashion documentaries, the eccentric quotes make the movie. Vreeland famously announced “The bikini is the biggest thing since the atom bomb” at the time of its creation in 1946 — reflecting the idea the clothing has its own way of conveying that cultural and political climate of its time. And despite her lack of an education, Vreeland had a sincere way of reflecting fashion’s changing styles in her work.
The film highlights some of the most significant turning points in women’s history, following not only the clothing but also the diverse array of women who wore it. A feminist thinker, Vreeland asks the question: “Are women different than they ever were?”
The art of getting dressed and keeping a home might seem frivolous in her early Harper’s Bazaar column titled “Why don’t you …,” but Vreeland, who paved the way for many women in subsequent years, asks the viewer to question the innate power women have to contribute to society.
Both Vreeland and the documentary challenge the audience to look at the form of the ever-evolving woman. It is a film about progress, and it depicts this theme in a way that is vibrant and theatrical, feeling more like a thriller than a textbook.
The film’s strong suit lies in its candid interviews with industry icons, including designers Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg. Each segment is cut brilliantly to reflect the persona of the interviewees. Such legends add a modern presence to a documentary that would otherwise be fully composed of vintage footage.
In addition, there are the requisite quips from former assistants and photographers, some of whom refer to her as “threatening” or “difficult.” As the original fashion visionary and purveyor of good taste, Vreeland did have the capacity to make outlandish requests of her staff. The Eye Has to Travel touches on that reputation, but in general paints a glowing picture of the editor as “the empress of fashion.”
Vreeland’s legacy lives on in the form of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, where she spent her final years expanding the museum’s historical fashion exhibits and introducing what is still one of fashion’s most celebrated nights: the annual Costume Institute Gala.
Fitting, considering the Costume Institute continues to push boundaries and provoke conversation among the fashion and art crowds around the world.