Although it sometimes seems as though Anna Wintour of the bob and big glasses has been in charge of Vogue for the magazine’s entire 120-year history, there have in fact been six other editors. The most famous of them before Wintour was Diana Vreeland, who arrived at Vogue in 1962 after 25 years at Harper’s Bazaar (where she was said have discovered both the bikini and Bacall) and made it hers. Charming yet tyrannical, eccentric and experimental, Vreeland had the gift of the fashion eye and instinct. She made Edie Sedgwick, Twiggy and Veruschka household names. She’d dispatch Richard Avedon to Egypt for a fashion shoot with instructions no more detailed than to “think of Cleopatra” or dismiss a photograph of a famed model at her most stunning with the oddball declaration that there was “no languor in the lips.”
The documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel demonstrates that an almost hypnotic fabulousness can still emanate from the late great fashion editor, even via fuzzy old videotape viewed 23 years after her death. It’s visual—the stage makeup rouge, the silhouette with that toucan nose, the hair helmet that looks styled by Tim Burton—and aural. In a voice as imperious as Katharine Hepburn’s and as eccentric as Little Edie Beale’s, Vreeland holds forth on subjects ranging from Adolph Hitler (the moustache was “ridiculous”) to the importance of leopards (she wouldn’t want to live in a world without them). Some of it is nonsense, but the most delightful sort of nonsense. And quite often she spoke in perfect soundbites. “Why all this naturalness?” she said to Jane Pauley, in an interview conducted after she’d been unceremoniously fired from Vogue and gone to work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “It’s a form of laziness.”
“You’d be constantly sort of breathless from the things she would say,” remembers Penelope Tree, the famed model who was discovered by Vreeland in 1966. The other talking heads in this loving film, which plays like the most authorized of biographies, include photographers Richard Avedon and David Bailey, designers Diane von Furstenberg and Manolo Blahnik and actresses Ali McGraw and Angelica Houston. McGraw lived her own Devil Wears Prada scenario when Vreeland hired her as an assistant, fresh from Wellesley College but apparently not respectful enough; she recalls having Vreeland toss a coat at her, Priestly style, and then throwing it right back at the grand dame of fashion. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland, a granddaughter-in-law who came into the family too late to have met Vreeland (she died in 1989), splices the contemporary segments with vintage television interviews with Vreeland conducted by Pauley, Dick Cavett and Diane Sawyer as well as the real gems, audiotapes from conversations with George Plimpton, who helped Vreeland write her memoirs.
“Style is everything, George,” Vreeland drawls to Plimpton. “It helps you get up in the morning. It helps you get down the stairs. It’s a way of life. Without it you’re nobody. And I am not talking about a lot of clothes.”
(READ: About one of Vreeland’s male counterparts in Richard Corliss’s review of Valentino: The Last Emperor)
The film has plenty of style, Immordino Vreeland being no fashion slouch herself, having worked for Polo Ralph Lauren and run her own Italian knitwear company. She opens with a jazzy montage of images from Harper’s and Vogue, along with a droll clip of Vreeland demanding “let’s get this movie started,” all set to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” Old film clips play a heavy role in The Eye Has to Travel, some of which are time and place-appropriate, like Funny Face and Who Are You Polly Magoo?, William Klein’s 1966 movie featuring a fashion editor character based on Vreeland. Others feel extraneous to Vreeland, more of the time than of the person, and you wish there were even more of Vreeland on camera to be included. Immorindino makes do and experiments herself; in one playful sequence she has her daughter Olivia Vreeland read aloud from one of Vreeland’s earliest professional endeavors, the “Why Don’t You” column she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar. Olivia’s eyes get bigger and bigger as she reads and by the time she gets to “Why don’t you wear violet velvet mittens with everything?” she’s practically doing a Groucho Marx with her eyebrows; you can see her thinking: Great grandma sure was whacky. The scene heightens the joyful absurdity of Vreeland’s column, which the empress of fashion admits, in voiceover, “was rather frivolous.”
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of L’Amour Fou, the Yves Saint Laurent documentary)
The Eye Has to Travel itself is not frivolous, but it is not hard hitting, unless you count the interview in which her son Tim says “I grew up wishing I had any mother but this mother,” which comes across more like a loving recollection of her eccentricity than an insult. Immordino Vreeland says she was researching her illustrated book about Vreeland (it has the same title) when she “realized that [Vreeland’s] real strengths and subtleties needed to be conveyed in a three-dimensional platform.” I’d say ideally there should be an app for that, where one click would take you right to the photo shoots Avedon and Bailey are referring to or let you linger on the vintage photos of the young Vreeland or check out footage from the Black & White ball where Vreeland first spotted Penelope Tree.
But in the meantime this celebratory film, ready to be devoured by fans of other recent fashion documentaries such as Valentino: The Last Emperor, L’Amour Fou and The September Issue (the most pointed and best of the bunch) functions as an invitation to go deeper into Vreeland’s biography. (I’ve got my eye on Eleanor Dwight’s 2002 illustrated biography Diana Vreeland.) There you might learn more about the impact of say, Vreeland’s pretty mother and her casual cruelty toward her unconventional looking daughter, mentioned here but not dwelled on, or her beloved husband Reed’s apparent marital wanderings, which aren’t discussed. Vreeland wouldn’t approve though. “Why all this family talk?” Vreeland says impatiently to Plimpton when he tries to steer their conversation to the personal. “Why shouldn’t we get to the more exciting stuff?” Her granddaughter-in-law dutifully steers the story toward the professional, which undeniably, is enticing material. The mind may clamor for more, but the eye, traveling over this visual history of Diana Vreeland, is pleased.