Before Anna Wintour, there was Diana Vreeland. In the realms of fashion and art, few names are as iconic and influential as hers. In a world that often favored conformity and conventionality, she fearlessly blazed her own trail, leveraging her eccentric style and bold persona to leave an indelible mark on the fashion industry. Among her many achievements, one of the most remarkable legacies she left behind is her revolutionary work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she curated a series of memorable exhibitions that continue to inspire and engage audiences to this day.
Diana Vreeland was known for her unconventional taste, sharp wit, and unapologetic love for the avant-garde but most of all for history. As Richard Martin described it ‘For Vreeland, history was the grandest memory, a sweep through the elegances of the court of Versailles, a promenade through the grand silhouettes and extravagant textures of the Belle Epoque, and the colorful Russia of the Czars’.
Vreeland’s pioneering career as a fashion editor began when she arrived in New York in the 1920s. She started out at Harper’s Bazaar in 1936, then moved on to Vogue in 1962 as Editor-in-Chief, swiping the fashion industry off its feet. However, it wasn’t until the spring of 1973, when she joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Special Consultant to the Costume Institute, that the general public started to become acquainted with the world of costume.
Indeed prior to that spring of 1973, the field of costume within museums appeared to be dormant and antique. It exuded an aura of old-fashioned charm, with the costumes on exhibit mainly appealing to a handful of experts as if they had a limited appeal to the broader audience. But over the course of Diana’s decade-long role at the MET, a large and enthusiastic audience was introduced to the world of costume. By overseeing a series of groundbreaking exhibitions that forever altered the way fashion and art were viewed, she successfully bridged the gap between these two disciplines and brought the realm of costume to a wider global audience.
The first of Vreeland’s iconic exhibitions, ‘The World of Balenciaga’ in 1973, set the tone for what was to come. This show paid tribute to the legendary Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga and showcased his innovative and sculptural designs. The dramatic lighting, immersive settings, and meticulous selection of Balenciaga’s most remarkable pieces all contributed to making this exhibition one for the books.
Following ‘The World of Balenciaga’, Vreeland persisted in pushing the boundaries of what fashion exhibitions could be. She paid homage to the glamorous world of costume design with ‘Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design’ in 1974 and introduced viewers to the opulent Russian fashion scene and tradition with ‘The Glory of Russian Costume’ in 1976. Every show served as a tribute to Vreeland’s vision, and her remarkable ability to ‘suggest entire narratives through one oblique but compelling detail’.
Diana Vreeland was quite the observer. She held a deep admiration for the unknown and was drawn to anything foreign and exotic. This attraction was fueled by a celebration of the mysterious and unconventional, embracing beauty and style beyond Western norms. The epitome of this exotic allure was her legendary exhibit: ‘The Costumes of Royal India’ in 1985. A lavish selection of elaborate state and court costumes, intricate saris, and vibrant textiles, transported visitors to distant lands through the medium of fashion and art but also testified to the great impact of Indian fabrics on the English-speaking world.
As a true pioneer, Vreeland showed the world that fashion is an art form worthy of celebration and admiration. She brought fashion to the forefront of the art scene, transforming her exhibitions from mere clothing showcases into immersive odysseys through the realms of creativity and imagination.
In doing so, she challenged the conventions of both the art and fashion worlds and served as a poignant reminder that fashion is not merely a commodity but a powerful form of artistic expression. Diana Vreeland’s exhibitions at the MET remain timeless and pertinent to this day, bridging two worlds and serving as an enduring testament to the boundless potential of the human imagination.