In the midst of a global pandemic, when the stream of constant news is at it loudest, it is the perfect opportunity for quiet reflection. I’m sure a great philosopher said that somewhere before, but the message is certainly loud and clear given recent events.

As highlighted in last month’s column, “The New Fashion Industry”, the fashion community at large is coming together to help those in need, and re-evaluating the core values of their industry as they step into this new era. In navigating this time of great change, sometimes you must look to the past in order to define the future.

A stand-out figure of the 20th century fashion landscape was Diana Vreeland. Fashion editor, Editor-In-Chief, Consultant, Curator, Eccentric, Icon … the list of adjectives to describe Mrs. Vreeland can go on for days.

It was an interesting sight to watch social media on May 4 as many fashion influencers posted about the day that would have seen the Met Gala 2020 come to life in celebration of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “About Time: Fashion and Duration” exhibition. Meticulously curated by “Vogue” Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour every year, the first Monday of May is the most sought after invitation on the fashion calendar.

While many celebrities were posting throwback images of themselves on the red carpet, it was noticeable that many did not seem to recognize the real point of the now-iconic Met Gala. It’s a fundraiser for The Costume Institute at The Met, with the theme always inspired by the Institute’s planned exhibit.

For many inside and outside the field, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is now synonymous with fashion thanks to this highly publicized evening. But this was not always the case. When Diana Vreeland was appointed as Special Consultant to The Costume Institute in 1973, the costume portion of the museum was considered to be quite stuffy and uninteresting. Mrs. Vreeland changed all of that with her dramatic joie de vivre and her eye for seeing past traditional forms of beauty.

Her first exhibit, “The World of Balenciaga” showed that fashion exhibits could be impactful and interesting for mass audiences beyond just those with a penchant for 17th century fashion. It could be relevant as the modern day. Given that Balenciaga had only just passed away one year earlier, his groundbreaking legacy was still felt on the runways of the time.

One of her most iconic exhibits, still spoken in hallowed tones to this day, honored the work of Yves Saint Laurent, the man who was once the youngest-ever couturier after he took over as the creative force behind French fashion house Christian Dior upon the death of its namesake designer. In 1983, Mrs. Vreeland focused an entire exhibition on … cue the shock and awe … a living designer! A feat, surprisingly unheard of by most fashion museum standards.

Not only alive, Yves Saint Laurent had an iconic storefront in Manhattan not terribly far from The Met itself. In reading about this exhibit, modern scholars don’t seem to question the credentials of Monsieur Saint Laurent but many at the time were shocked that a living designer was being celebrated in this way. Mrs. Vreeland apparently did not agree that you had to be gone for your genius to be honored.

“In all this, there has been a certain amount of criticism of the museum’s wisdom – some would say audacity – in honoring the living rather than the dead. There has, however, been no dispute over the choice of the designer to be so honored,” said Carrie Donovan, writer for The New York Times in her January, 1984 column. “Yves Saint Laurent, in just about everyone’s book is the greatest fashion designer of our time. The casual observer of the fashion world, as well as the cognoscenti, know his name, and his skills.”

The “Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design” exhibit included several key YSL collections: his a-line trapezoid dresses, his famed cocktail dresses inspired by the work of artist Piet Mondrian that defined the 1960s counter-culture and the revolutionary tuxedo suiting techniques for women that speak for a generation.

Famed writer Hervé Guibert of “Le Monde” wrote of the exhibition in 1983:

“The Yves Saint Laurent retrospective … shows that a couturier can also – must be – a surveyor, an outspoken individual who has not exhausted his ability to love, an illusionist, a child, an astronomer, someone naive and a genius, an occasional writer, a copier, a tamer, a promoter, and a clairvoyant. And it shows that women do not want to be forced to be just one thing, but want to be saints and harpies, lionesses and huntresses, virgins and courtesans, men, paupers and countesses, clowns and spies, calm young women under their capelines or gray felt hats, and great armchair travelers.”

Ever since the world was reminded of the genius of Yves Saint Laurent by Diana Vreeland, the fashion industry has never been the same. Fashion exhibitions as we know them today, a proven avenue to introduce the art into the mainstream, have her to thank for their continued success. And it would be prudent to thank Mrs. Vreeland overall for her contributions in shaping the fashion landscape of mid-twentieth century.

If she was alive today, we must ask … what would Mrs. Vreeland do?

For those wanting to learn more about the lasting legacy of Diana Vreeland, there is an insightful documentary called “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”. From her birth in the Belle Epoque era of Paris to her now-iconic work at “Harper’s Bazaar” and “Vogue”, it’s an intriguing look at an extraordinary woman.

–Jennifer Perusek

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