"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Diana Vreeland, Vidal Sassoon, And STYLE!!

For Diana Vreeland style was everything.  It was not just how you looked and dressed, but who you were.  Style was what made glamor, and beauty alone was worth little.

You gotta have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody. I’m not talking about lots of clothes.

Style was attitude, décor, setting, and personality.  It was Hollywood, for movie stars also understood that style is not superficial, but the essential part of a woman. As Editor-in-Chief at Vogue, Vreeland revolutionized the fashion industry.

Vreeland was not a fashion designer, but she radically changed the way that fashion was presented.  The model may have been the centerpiece, but the final image was a result of the careful orchestration of makeup, setting, accessories, and lighting. The image was stylish, not necessarily the model. “I adore artifice”, she said. “I always have”. 

This story went around about me: Apparently I’d wanted a billiard-table green background for a picture. So the photographer went out and took the picture. I didn’t like it. He went out and took it again and I still didn’t like it. ‘I asked for billiard-table green!’ I’m supposed to have said. ‘But this is a billiard table, Mrs. Vreeland,’ the photographer replied. ‘My dear,’ I apparently said, ‘I meant the idea of billiard-table green.

For Vreeland everything was secondary to style and visual effect. 

A lie to get out of something, or take an advantage for oneself, that’s one thing; but a lie to make life more interesting—well, that’s entirely different

Anjelica Huston was one of her favorite models – versatile, unafraid, and supremely confident.

In the documentary, The Eye Has to Travel – an excellent film history of Vreeland, Huston remarked that Vreeland’s sense of style went further than just the visually exciting. She showed women’s supreme confidence, strength, and power.

Vreeland never was persuaded by classical beauty or prettiness. What she was looking for in a face was drama.  She loved Barbra Streisand’s ‘Nefertiti-like’ nose, and photographed her to accentuate it rather than hide it.


Fashion has often been disparaged as unnecessary, exorbitant, and the worst example of the excesses of capitalism.  For Vreeland and all the great designers – Valentino, Versace, Dior, Armani, and Ralph Lauren – it was nothing of the sort.  It was art, drama, opera, sculpture, and the sheer exuberance of individual creativity. Fashion was a celebration of the artist – Vreeland the impresario, the fashion designer, the photographer, the set designer, and anyone who used inspiration and individuality to contribute to the final dramatic scene.

Style – all who have it share one thing: originality.  There’s only one thing in life, and that’s the continual renewal of inspiration.

High art is seen behind closed doors in galleries, museums, and private collections; but fashion is public. Vogue was Vreeland’s Metropolitan or Guggenheim.  Yet, she did far more than display fashion and style.  She created it.

I think part of my success as an editor came from never worrying about a fact, a cause, an atmosphere. It was me—projecting to the public. That was my job. I think I always had a perfectly clear view of what was possible for the public. Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted.

Vidal Sassoon was a less influential figure than Vreeland because he was only a hair designer; but he had a vision of how women should look, and he freed them from traditionally feminine forms and allowed them the same confident expression of style seen in the images of Anjelica Huston.  He was in a way as revolutionary as she was. 

Not only that, he, like Vreeland, understood the sexual revolution that was going on in the Sixties.  Women no longer wanted to spend hours each day caring for long hair, curls, waves, and perms.  They wanted to look good, feel the liberation of short but stylish hair, and most of all, feel stylish. 

If you get hold of a head of hair on somebody you've never seen before, cut beautiful shapes, cut beautiful architectural angles and she walks out looking so different - I think that's masterful.

I regard the five-point cut as the finest cut I have ever created – the geometric design in its purest, most classical form.

Sassoon grew up poor in a tough neighborhood and empathized with young working women who like all women wanted to look good, but who didn’t have the time or money to spend on themselves.

Sassoon was styling hair in the Swinging London of Carnaby Street and the Beatles; and became a collaborator with Betsey Johnson, the best-known fashion designer of the period.  Both understood the dramatic social changes taking place, and both knew how to dress and style the women who were at the forefront of the movement; and they often did so together.  Johnson’s style was youthful, eclectic, and hip; and Sassoon’s classic architectural hair design was a perfect counterpoint.

Washington is a frumpy town.  There are simply too many politicians, lobbyists, and bureaucrats coming from the hinterlands to generate style and excitement.  As a result, the look of the mammoth federal government agencies resembles that of these newcomers, country bumpkins from the hills, plains, and hollers of America.

In addition, giant federal bureaucracies are by nature bottom-line cultures.  Regardless of the perpetual stories of waste, fraud, and abuse, most government officials are highly budget-sensitive.  Excess and show are frowned upon.  These men and women are doing the people’s work and cannot be seen to be throwing it away.  A glamorous, elegant, and stylish woman would be completely and totally out of place in the Department of Homeland Security.

I once worked for a large non-profit international agency which began by providing relief to displaced Europeans after WWII.  From there, and thanks to the largesse of the US Government and the millions of tons of surplus food it provided for onward distribution to the world’s hungry, the organization branched out to the Developing World.  Although it received food from the Government, it relied on contributions from individual donors.

Their building was in an old warehouse on the East Side of New York – a large industrial building which had been retrofitted for offices. Everything inside was dull and drab.  The walls were painted a battleship grey, the desks second-hand and creaky. The lights were dim and only ceiling fans cooled the space in summer. The employees were drab, colorless, and almost invisible.  It was a depressing place. Yet, the organization had plenty of money, and could have spruced things up, at least lightened the decor and made the work environment more pleasant.  No, said the Executive Vice President.  What if a donor were to walk in the door?

In other words, the donor from Dubuque needed to see that every single dollar of donation went to the starving children in India, and not a penny spent on excess. The same mentality pervades the Washington bureaucracy; and unfortunately extends to the way its workers dress and look.

There are press reports daily which sing the praises of the new Washington.  It is finally emerging from the miasma of a one-employer, government town and becoming a real city.  It now has restaurants, cafes, hip boutiques, and night clubs.  It has joined the cultural mainstream. Well, sort of.  All of these newcomers still work for the government or are geeks that have come from Cupertino or Route 128; and while they may think they are hip and stylish, one trip up to New York City will show how wrong they are.

The last time there was any real style in Washington was during the Kennedy years.  When asked about the ‘Kennedy style’, Diana Vreeland said there was no such thing.  It was the Jacqueline Bouvier style.  She loved Jackie and Richard Avedon, the photographer who shot many of her models.

Republicans are a bit higher on fashion than Democrats.  ‘Progressives’ are of the same cultural mentality as the battleship grey, eyeshade-wearing accountants of the non-profit world – nothing too showy or to excess and all ‘for the people’; but Republicans who value individuality, enterprise, and individual expression are a lot more forgiving. The Reagan White House, thanks to Nancy and Ron’s Hollywood connections, was always lit up and showy – perhaps not in the Diana Vreeland style, but still better than Carter, Johnson, or Clinton.

I can only say that I am glad that New York is just a few hours up the road, and I can visit this city of energy, verve, excitement, and style anytime.   And then there is Paris.

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