When I married Alexander Vreeland, I never imagined I would spend three years documenting his legendary grandmother — magazine editor, tastemaker, fashion icon — but I was driven by the idea of honouring her uniquely creative genius. During her 26-year tenure at US Harper’s BAZAAR (1936–62), Diana didn’t just clothe women; she presented them with aspirations, ideas and the possibility of a more glamourous self.
“She was and remains the only genius fashion editor,” Richard Avedon said after her death in 1989. I interviewed more than 60 people for my documentary, The Eye Has To Travel, including her sons, Tim and Frederick. My husband and his brother, Nicholas, shared wonderful childhood memories of time spent with their “Nonina”. If there was one common thread, it was that Diana’s vision inspired people to push forward their own lives. I discovered many interesting things about her during my research. Here are 15 of them:
1. The pillows in her home were infused with perfume via hypodermic needles.
2. Before becoming a fashion editor, Diana had a lingerie shop in London. Legend has it that Wallis Simpsonseduced Edward, then Prince of Wales, while wearing one of Diana’s nightgowns. “Mom’s store brought down the British Empire,” her son Frederick once joked. She had her own nightgowns tailored, with up to three fittings each.
3. She always had her dollar bills and tissues ironed before putting them in her handbag.
4. She ate the same lunch every day: a wholewheat peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwich, washed down with Scotch. “Peanut butter is the greatest invention since Christianity,” she said.
5. She rarely left home before noon, often conducting serious business from her tub.
6. The only thing Diana loved more than fashion was reading, and her favourite book was Moby-Dick. “My life has been more influenced by books than by any other one thing,” she said.
7. Film-maker Joel Schumacher got his start working with her as a fashion stylist.
8. Diana’s signature colour was red, but she never found the perfect shade, which was, according to her, “the colour of a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait”.
9. She had her custom–made shoes shined for years before she started wearing them. Once they entered her rotation, she had the leather and the soles shined every day.
10. She approved of jeans but only on the right body: “I think blue jeans are the most beautiful things in the world, and can be as tight as you can wear them, but only if you look well and have long limbs.”
11. Paris’s Hôtel de Crillon reserved her personal bed linens for her frequent visits.
12. Her grandson Nicholas is a Tibetan Buddhist monk (the first Westerner to be made an abbot), while my husband, Alexander, has always worked in fashion.
13. She loved surfing but never tried it.
14. Diana’s kabuki-like blush was a signature that not everyone understood. A kindly flight attendant once offered: “Here honey, let me rub in your rouge for you.”
15. Her “Why Don’t You … ?” column was parodied in 1938 by The New Yorker: “If a strange lady came up to you on the street and demanded, ‘Why don’t you travel with a little raspberry-coloured blanket to throw over yourself …’ the chances are you would hit her with a bottle.”