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Before Twiggy, Madonna and Gaga, there was Vreeland

Diana Vreeland was a style icon before people knew what that meant. Today, the best-dresseds are a dime a dozen. Some will name Anna Piaggi, Madonna, Victoria Beckham or Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Others look to previous decades, citing Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis, Twiggy, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest.

But Vreeland was the first to truly understand the nature and importance of style. She was never beautiful. She was never rich. But the legendary editor of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue didn't let that stop her. She invented herself as a larger-than-life character, feared and admired, all red lips, black hair, overdone rouge and exaggerated, dramatic voice, carried around like an expensive accessory. Last week, a documentary about her life, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, opened in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Directed by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the film is a reminder of the power of creative identity and a lesson in the beauty of an eccentricity that no one else can emulate.

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Vreeland, who died in 1989 at the age of 86, didn't dress until noon. In the mornings, she liked to dictate memos from her bathtub, a favourite place to think about the way of the world and how to make it more divine.

In memory of a dame who knew how to work a scarf (and a cigarette holder), herewith are some imagined Vreeland-esque memos about her life and legacy.

Forget formal education

Who needs it? I had none. My maiden name was Dalziel, an impossible name to pronounce, which someone told me means "I dare" in old Gaelic. My parents were racy, pleasure-seeking Parisians who brought all kinds of marvelous people through our house: the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The extravagance, the passion, the excitement. Here is a secret to my ambition: Style is theatre.

Conventional beauty is overrated

My only sibling, Alexandra, four and a half years younger than me, was The Beautiful Child. People referred to her like that, as if she had a title. People would stop to look at her in the pram. My mother once said to me, "Too bad you have such a beautiful sister and you're so extremely ugly." I used to say I was her ugly little monster. But if people ask you awkward questions, brush them off. George Plimpton, who edited my memoir, DV, asked me how that comment from my mother made me feel. I answered: "I don't think we want to go there." Remain positive.

Follow your passion

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It is everything. In 1937, I started a job at Harper's Bazaar. I knew nothing. But Carmel Snow, the editor, saw me dancing at the St. Regis hotel one night and admired what I had on. I started a column, "Why Don't You?" Frivolous, but fun. It was suggestions of things to do. One was "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?" I was fashion editor until 1962, working there for 26 years for $18,000 a year and never got a raise. I quit and went to Vogue.

Play up the little oddities that are part of your look

If you're tall, make yourself taller. If you have freckles, show them off. If you have a large nose, make that your signature. I encouraged Barbra Streisand to accentuate that Nefertiti nose of hers. I instructed the art director to photograph her in profile.

Create your own stories

Exaggerate them if you must. Blend fact with fiction. Call it faction. Life is part fantasy, no? I liked to exclaim that Charles Lindbergh once flew over the lawn at our house in Brewster, N.Y., on his way to Paris. Was it true? Faction! But I did discover Lauren Bacall. And it's true I made bikinis popular and understood the allure of blue jeans. I also had a little something to do with creating the Kennedy style. Occasionally, I gave Jackie advice about clothes. I suggested she carry a sable muff on Inauguration Day. I thought she would be cold. And a muff was so romantic.

I also liked to tell the story – true, this one – about the time Wallis Simpson came into the lingerie shop I ran in London in the thirties. She ordered three nightgowns. She had left her husband by then and the Duke of Windsor had discovered her. The negligees were for a special weekend. I like to say: "My little lingerie shop brought down the throne."

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Believe in extraordinary things

Like love at first sight. That's what happened when I met Reed Vreeland at a weekend party in Saratoga, Fla., on July 4, 1924. The moment our eyes met, I knew. He made me feel beautiful. I never felt comfortable about my looks until I married him.

Remember that age is boring

I never made it a fetish of mine. I was too busy working to add up the days. And forget the retirement thing. I didn't know what to do when I was fired by Vogue in 1971. Did I take to my bed for weeks on end? That was the rumour. But don't dwell on that. Before too long, at the age of 69, I became consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. By 1984, I was 81 and I had organized 12 exhibitions.

Think of the extraordinary and the things that make you feel glorious

Like the sea. I am mad about it. Mad. "God's tranquillizer" is how I describe it. I am envious of surfers who glide between the water and the sky. And remember this about style: You have to have it. I always say: "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. And I'm not talking about lots of clothes."

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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