Fashionably fitting, Vreeland makes for museum piece

December 09, 1993|By Bernadine Morris | Bernadine Morris,New York Times News Service

She has become part of the mythology of fashion, dominating the middle decades of this century.

So it was altogether fitting and proper that the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York chose Diana Vreeland as the subject of its new exhibition.

The exhibition captures some of the enthusiasms and style of the woman with craggy features and blue-black hair who served as an impresario of fashion from the mid-1930s until her death, in 1989, at age 86.

She mesmerized designers as diverse as Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Issey Miyake, Valentino, Gianni Versace and Arnold Scaasi.

Her affinity for lacquer red and leopard spots influenced many of them. Her aphorisms -- for example, "pink is the navy blue of India," which is inscribed in false marble at the entrance to the exhibition -- were traded gleefully within the fashion industry.

Some of her most startling comments appeared in the column she wrote called "Why Don't You . . . " when she joined Harper's Bazaar in 1936.

Some of her suggestions were especially astonishing to read in the midst of the Depression. "Why don't you . . . rinse your blond child's hair in dead champagne?" she wrote, or "have a furry elk-hide trunk for the back of your car?"

She left Harper's Bazaar in 1962 to become editor in chief of Vogue, where she remained until 1971.

The following year, at an age when most people could be expected to retire, she started a new career as special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum. She brought to this job the same theatrical flair she did to editing fashion.

She organized annual exhibitions, starting with a Balenciaga retrospective in 1973, the year after the designer's death. Some were devoted to a particular time, like the early decades of this century, or a special place: Russia, Hollywood, Austria-Hungary and China each had its season in the sun.

The striking presentations as well as the clothes themselves drew crowds to the museum, not usual with clothing exhibits. This spurred other museums to give more importance to their fashion and costume collections.

Mrs. Vreeland not only showed clothes in her exhibits but also used the museum's resources for appropriate paintings, sculpture, artifacts and furniture.

So there was plenty of material when Richard Martin, the curator, and Harold Koda, the associate curator of the Costume Institute, planned a show on Vreeland and her work. It is the third and most successful of the exhibitions planned by the curators who have inherited her mantle. But then, having such an exuberant subject, they could hardly miss.

They have divided the exhibit into four themes in her work. They call them memory, atavism, exoticism and nature. A party scene, called "Improbable Affinities," draws together people and designers she admired.

The group includes the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Felicia Bernstein, C. Z. Guest, Yves Saint Laurent and Barbra Streisand. You have to read the labels to tell who is who -- the mannequins are generic.

How accurate are these conjectures? It hardly matters.

The exhibition as a whole is a mad conglomeration of African tribal robes, a child with a pink flamingo, servants in livery, 1920s chemises and more, much more. Through this dazzling assemblage can be glimpsed, dimly, the fantastic woman who inspired it.

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