The Iconic Editor of Harper’s Bazaar
Over the course of her 30+ year career as Fashion Editor for Harper’s Bazaar and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, Vreeland transformed women’s magazines from humdrum society journals into bastions of the extraordinary.
Known as the Empress of Fashion, Vreeland took on editorial authority with a new sense of artistry, purpose, and point-of-view, creating the role of magazine Editor as we know it today. Decades before Meryl Streep channeled Anna Wintour in the Devil Wears Prada, Vreeland’s persona had already been immortalized in the iconic 1957 film Funny Face starring Audrey Hepburn.
Vreeland began at Harper’s Bazaar in 1936 at the age of 35. She did not have much work experience under her belt. She did, however, have a strong sense of personal style and a trendsetter’s playful eye. Born in Paris, raised in New York City and with ties to London, she also understood the cultural exchange between Europe and America better than most.
When I started working on the Divine Living Magazine, I knew there were few women who could teach me more about leading a creative team than Diana Vreeland. I loved watching the documentary on her life, The Eye Has to Travel, and reading her famous memos from the Vogue days. After getting to know her story, I put together three insights for creative women entrepreneurs drawn from her life’s work. Read on and let Vreeland’s one-of-a-kind energy inspire you to be more bold, more daring, and more confident in your convictions as you lead your team toward success.
At the time she was discovered by Harper’s Bazaar Editor Carmel Snow, Vreeland was a married mother of two boys, and a well-connected socialite. She had trained as a dancer before wedding banker Reed Vreeland in 1924. The couple lived in upstate New York and then moved to London for a time, where Diana opened a lingerie boutique and enjoyed a fabulous jet-set lifestyle, frequently darting off to Paris for fittings with her friend Coco Chanel.
Snow met Vreeland soon after she moved back to New York, spotting her on the dance floor at the St. Regis in a white lace Chanel number and her signature rouged cheekbones. Noticing her distinctive style, Snow immediately enlisted her as a columnist for Bazaar.
Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You…” column was an instant hit, offering outrageous and luxurious suggestions for how readers might liven things up—ideas like: “Tie black tulle bows on your wrists?”, “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?” and “Have an elk-hide trunk for the back of your car? Hermes of Paris will make this.”
Soon promoted to Fashion Editor, Vreeland stormed the pages of Bazaar with her infectious energy and revolutionary point-of-view. Under her guidance, the fashion spreads took on a fantastical new quality, transporting readers to far-out scenes around the globe.
Vreeland gave women permission to be grand. Before her, magazines like Harper’s Bazaar were practical guides focused on real life home-making. Now they were also a source of otherworldly inspiration.
Throughout her career at Bazaar and Vogue Vreeland continued to produce the most extravagantly beautiful photoshoots in exotic locales, with little regard for costs and budget. She inspired her photographers, models, and stylists through lush storytelling, and kept them on task by sending out her now-famous memos. Always dictated, these quotable notes carried with them the power of her voice and the sharpness of her insight.
While Vreeland became known for her visionary fantasy worlds, she was also right on the pulse of mass culture and often became the first to embrace (or even create) new trends. She was an early adopter of denim, manicured red nails, and perhaps most famously, the bikini.
Vreeland first spotted a woman wearing a bikini in St. Tropez in the years after WWII, and found it to represent such a big shift in culture that she famously called it “the most important thing since the atom bomb.” In 1947, she shocked everyone by showing a model wearing one in the pages of Bazaar. People were simply not used to seeing that much skin, and when they complained, Vreeland simply retorted, “It’s that kind of thinking that holds civilization back thousands of years.”
In 1962 Vreeland left Bazaar and became Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, where she thrived at the center of the swinging sixties.
While being an icon in her own right, she helped create many more. She consulted with Jacqueline Onassis on her wardrobe during Kennedy’s run for president, and was friends with all the influential celebrities of the moment—Jack Nicholson, Angelica Houston, Cher and Andy Warhol. She mingled with young people at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub, and Warhol’s hangout, the Factory. Anticipating the British Invasion, she was also the first to put both Mick Jagger and the Beatles in an American magazine.
Vreeland lived in the now. Never limited by the past, she gave herself the power to pick up on what was next. And she encouraged everyone to move forward with her, embracing change with a grand sense of fun and accessibility.
understood that she could create her own
allure through style. She knew she was not a
conventional beauty, so instead of trying to fit
the mold she took pride in her distinctive look.
She dressed and presented herself meticulously according to her own rulebook, and she never hid her prominent nose, becoming all the more attractive for being confident and strong in her own skin.
It was perhaps this experience of creating herself that gave her an eye for that special something in others. She favored unusual models. To play up their supposed “flaws,” she commissioned photos that celebrated features like extreme height, gap teeth, and big noses, widening the view of what feminine beauty could look like.
Vreeland boldly introduced the world to fresh new superstars like Twiggy, Lauren Bacall, Cher, Iman, and Barbra Streisand. Most famously she showcased Streisand, a petite, unconventional beauty, like a supermodel in Vogue, elevating what she called her “Nefertiti nose” in dramatic profile. She made models into personalities and personalities into models, encouraging a sense of individuality in fashion, and promoting the idea that elegance is not about what you’re given—but what you do with it.