Known for her snappy witticisms that would translate well to the 140-character limit of a tweet, Diana Vreeland was the all-knowing arbiter elegantiarum and editrix who has been deified by André Leon Talley. She was a product of her time. Born in 1903 to a wealthy British-American family, she was a Studio 54 devotee later in life, but clung to a turn-of-the-century vision of the world. She came of age in the Roaring Twenties and interwar period, decades before critical conversations about race and representation sparked by the Civil Rights Movement. Her rose-colored vision of world was reflected in the editorials that she published as the editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971. She was inspired by flights of fantasy, opulence and exoticism—problematic or unproblematic.
She was eventually fired from Vogue and tapped to be a consultant for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she met one of her greatest sycophants: André Leon Talley. In fact, Talley styled a shoot in her “garden in hell” drawing room for a 1979 Vanity Fair spread by Jonathan Becker [Fig. 1, top image]. If one looks closely, one can spy a blackamoor decorative lamp to her right. Ever a lover of the exotic, she embraced a vision of blackness that was purely aesthetic and almost completely divorced from politics of redress.
Vreeland is memorialized in a documentary, a play, and a number of articles and books. Yet, few have considered her peculiar relationship with blackness. We don’t have to look hard to glean her views of blackness. Her friendship with Talley is well documented. In her 1983 memoir, D.V., she tells of sitting beside Josephine Baker, who brought her pet cheetah to see L’Atlantide, in a Paris theater. She starts the next chapter: “I sometimes think there’s something wrong with white people. We’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blacks are almost the only people I can stand to look at nowadays.” She goes on, “I love to see black schoolchildren who come into the Museum, marching in a neat little row, wearing immaculate cardigan sweaters their mothers have knitted for them.” Here she expresses a positive view of blackness, but that vision rarely appeared in the pages of Vogue during her tenure, except in its most exotic expression. She valorized blackness, but only when fetishized and occupying prescribed roles, like the obsequious blackamoor. “I’m told it’s not in good taste to wear blackamoors anymore, but I think I’ll revive it. Why not?”
The wearing of blackamoors fell out of favor after World War II and today is considered racist. Yet, Vreeland’s commentary on blackness and the wearing of blackamoors reveals prevailing views on the ornamental use of black figures at the time, traces of which occasionally resurface today in antique stores and luxury fashion. Vreeland is most remembered as an enduring tastemaker and groundbreaking editor-in-chief at Vogue, but it should not be forgotten that she is also perpetrator of not-so-subtle racism that prevailed among women of her race and class.
At a Glance
Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie. Diana Vreeland – Empress of Fashion (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).
Talley, André Leon. The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir of André Leon Talley (Random House Publishing Group, 2020).
Vreeland, Diana. Allure (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1980).
Vreeland, Diana. D.V. (New York: Knopf, 1984).
Film: Diana Vreeland: the eye has to travel. 2012. Vreeland, Lisa Immordino, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Frédéric Tcheng, Philippe De Montebello, Diana Vreeland, Cristobal Zañartu, and Paul Cantelon.
Book: Vreeland, Diana, and Alexander Vreeland. Memos: The Vogue Years, 1962-1971. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2013.