While you're watching the dizzily enjoyable documentary "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," opening at the Tower today, you may find yourself thinking with an increasing fervor that, yes, wearing violet velvet mittens with everything is a fantastic idea, and that you're just mad about rouge. Vreeland, a doyenne of 20th century fashion and a paradigmatic self-made woman, had a genius for the inspirational, the gnomic and the divinely quotable. Atwitter before Twitter, she was a fabulous wit: "The best thing about London is Paris." "Fashion is not the same thing as style." "I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity."
Vreeland, née Diana Dalziel, was born in Paris around the turn of the 20th century and died in New York in 1989. In between she lived an extraordinary life that, in classic American fashion, was a triumph of self-invention. Her father, Frederick Young Dalziel, was British and a stockbroker; her mother, Emily Key Hoffman (related to Francis Scott Key), was American and cruel, at least to her eldest daughter.
"Parents, you know," Vreeland says in "D.V.," her compulsively readable autobiography, "can be terrible."
Certainly that seems true of her mother who, when Vreeland was a child, told her that she was "extremely ugly," unfavorably comparing her to Diana's younger sister, Alexandra.
"It didn't offend me that much," she wrote. She just walked out of the room and, it seems, onto her own path.
That road is laid out in the documentary, which was written and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of a Vreeland grandson, Alexander. (He runs the Diana Vreeland Estate, which supports the website dianavreeland.com.) Vreeland exploits the family connection smartly, sprinkling the movie with talking-head interviews with her relatives, including Diana's sons, Frederick and Tim. Although both men are fairly discreet when it comes to their mother, there's no denying the pain that edges into their faces when they discuss life with her. Diana Vreeland was mad (one of her favorite words) about her beautiful husband, Thomas Reed Vreeland, a banker and apparent philanderer, but she doesn't appear to have been remotely interested in being a parent.
She says as much in the dialogue with George Plimpton recited by off-screen actors, Annette Miller and Jonathan Epstein, that's taken from transcripts of the conversations they had while working on "D.V." As Plimpton gently prods and coaxes, Vreeland parries and thrusts, digresses and dissembles, sometimes hilariously, narrating a life that became a vocation and included a quarter-century at Harper's Bazaar and an influential reign at Vogue, where she was the editor from 1963 to 1971.
Their conversation is the spine of the movie that features many glittering witnesses, including an animated, funny Manolo Blahnik who proclaims while next to a high-heel shoe. Ali MacGraw, a former Vreeland assistant, testifies in front of what looks like a statue of Buddha.
To judge from all these fond and jaundiced memories, Vreeland's life was a decades-long whirlwind of beauty and color, sustained by a deep, unquenchable hunger for life and a revolt against conformity and Mommy Meanest. Some of that life was ridiculous, yet it's clear that when Vreeland pushed purple mittens, she wasn't just doling out giddily eccentric counsel, she was also issuing a call for independence, individuality, nonconformity.
Life is absurd, so just put on some chandelier earrings and rouge to greet it. There was, she knew, a wide wonderful world out there for the grabbing and tasting. So she asked in 1936 for her Harper's Bazaar column, "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?" Why not indeed?
DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL
★ ★ ★
Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Rated PG-13 (Some adult language)