Diana Vreeland at home, photographed by Jonathan Becker, available at First Dibs
Americans have always been drawn to big personalities — we just love adventurers and iconoclasts who embody the American spirit. And for much of the 20th century, Diana Vreeland was one of the biggest personalities in the country. From her endless bon mots to her signature lacquered hair to her famous request that her living room look “like a garden, but a garden in hell,” she was an original whose presence still looms in American style.
She once said that “You gotta have style. It helps you get up in the morning. It's a way of life. . . . And I'm not talking about a lot of clothes." And indeed, her life was suffused with style. When she lived in London, she painted her front door red. When she wrote her autobiography, she embellished the truth, invented stories, and then called her entertaining blend of fact and fiction “fraction.” While working at Vogue, she invented the word pizzazz. She discovered Lauren Bacall in 1940s and helped launch Twiggy's career in America. When Manolo Blahnik showed her his fashion sketches, she advised him to focus on shoes. She gave style advice to her good friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and shopped for Katherine Graham. And throughout the decades, she doled out one quotable opinion after another, including “Too much good taste can be boring” and "I'm terrible on facts. But I always have an idea. If you have an idea, you're well ahead"
The first "Why Don't You" Column debuted in 1936
Vreeland, who was born in Paris to an American mother and British father, spent the majority of her life in New York City. In a 1980 interview with Henry Geldzahler, New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, she noted that "It's a working man's town. There's no leisure. We don't look for it. It doesn't exist . . . how lucky you are to be here!" Her fashion career began after Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow saw her dancing at the St. Regis in a Chanel lace dress and bolero with roses tucked in her hair. Although Vreeland had no editorial experience, Snow realized her potential and offered her a job. At Harper's Bazaar, Vreeland created the legendary "Why Don’t You?” column in which she proposed fun, whimsical, and often outlandish ideas. Suggestions ranged from "Why don't you wear violet velvet mittens with everything?" to “Why don’t you paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys’ nursery so they won’t grow up with a provincial point of view?" The column reflected the carefree individuality that was coming to be cherished in America.
A photo from the famous 1968 collaboration between Veruschka, Franco Rubartelli, and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo in Arizona's Painted Desert.
Vreeland spent 25 years at Harper’s and was known for championing American design and working closely with photographers and models. She left Harper's Bazaar for Vogue in 1962, where her creative input led to photo shoots — like the July 1968 collaboration between Veruschka and Franco Rubartelli — that are still famous. At Vogue, Vreeland encouraged photographers and models to travel to far-flung locales like Japan and Bali for shoots, an idea that was groundbreaking at the time. Eventually, the price of these shoots became too much for Vogue, who let her go in 1971. Despite that, she had set a new precedent for fashion editorials and photography — Richard Avedon credited her with creating "a totally new profession" out of fashion editing, which had previously been done by and largely for society women. She went on to become special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her exhibits, including 1973's "The World of Balenciaga" and 1976's "The Glory of Russian Costume" drew enormous crowds and the annual Costume Institute Gala became the party of the year. After her death in 1989, the New York Times noted that she'd had "an innate understanding of the extraordinary pace of change in 20th-century life."
Vreeland in her "Garden from Hell" Living Room
Of course, her Park Avenue apartment also became iconic and its red living room is one of the most recognizable rooms in design history. Decorated by American designer Billy Baldwin in 1955, the home she shared with her husband Reed and their two sons was a riot of color and pattern. There was no minimalism or subdued décor. Bold stripes ran down the sides of the dining room and adorned the matching cushions and bench, creating a look akin to a chic, preppy tent. Her bedroom was an English garden, with blue chintz covering the walls and a bed designed by British designer Syrie Maugham. In person, the effect of these rooms was said to be spectacular – especially the red living room at night. Her taste, while not for everyone, was definitely her own and she embraced it. Over the years, she did many interviews in her own living room.
Throughout her life, Vreeland was known for her theatricality and irreverence. From inventing a childhood spent in Cairo, to her exuberant writing ("Vreeland!—with a V!" I say whenever I have to give my name over the telephone. "V as in 'victory'! V as in 'violent'!"), to her opinions ("Whatever age you are, you're older than you ought to be."), she was never dull. New York Magazine noted that stories about her have "have one denominator: None of them has anything to do with modern life as it is commonly lived." She was a true icon who lived with grace, style, and aplomb.