The current fashion era sometimes seems to be dominated by catchphrases as much as it is by clothes. Think of Project Runway judge Tim Gunn’s “make it work” mantra; designer Isaac Mizrahi’s frequent admonishments to contestants on The Fashion Show that “we’re just not buying it”; Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf’s declaration that tights “are not pants.” Like the proverbial dozens of Eskimo words for snow, we have many pithy ways to declare an item’s wonderfulness or horribleness (or both at once). For all of this, we have Diana Vreeland, who was editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, to thank.
Vreeland was dead serious about clothes—she called the bikini the “most important thing since the atom bomb”—but she nonetheless managed to talk about fashion in a way that appreciated and celebrated its frivolity. Had she not died in 1989, she would have made a fantastic blogger; she loved nothing more than broadcasting a contrarian opinion (she embraced both retouching and plastic surgery on the grounds that she had always adored artifice). With a speaking voice that was at the same time stentorian and throaty, she was the master of the grand pronouncement.
Her 1980 book Allure, which has just been republished by Chronicle Books, brings together Vreeland’s favorite images—ranging from gruesome photos of an eye lift to a playful shot of Raquel Welch entertaining the troops in Vietnam —with her singular brand of running commentary, taped by her collaborator Christopher Hemphill over the three years it took them to assemble the photographs. (The contents were subsequently edited by Jacqueline Onassis.)
Here, Marilyn Monroe is “a geisha”; blue jeans are “the most beautiful things since the gondola.” Rereading Allure, one can’t help but hear contemporary echoes: Where Vreeland said “When I see diamonds in a north light, on a little velvet pillow … I die,” celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe says “I die” to an Yves Saint Laurent gown.
But if today’s fashion people speak Vreeland, she does not speak their language. Hers was an era when a fashion editor could get away with saying “people have too many clothes, and I’m sticking with that.” Allure takes us back to this time, when “fashion” wasn’t yet a synonym for “consumption,” when it was better to be wrong than to be boring—just as long as one was clever about it.