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DIANA VREELAND AT THE COSTUME INSTITUTE

Of her departure from Vogue in 1971, Diana Vreeland once mused, “I was only 70. What was I supposed to do, retire?” Instead she took the stage in a career final act that once again demonstrated her certainty of vision and ability to transform the reputation and success of an established institution — in this case the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Director Tom Hoving sought to revitalize the museum, and showing incredible foresight, invited Mrs. Vreeland to become Special Consultant to the Costume Institute.

At that time the department could best be described as “sleepy,” and Mrs. Vreeland immediately redefined its historically-correct, yet lackluster, curatorial style. In the galleries of the Met, she was free to create an entire fantasy world, rather than be confined by two-dimensional magazine spreads. For her exhibitions she incorporated music, lighting design, props, even fragrances. She transformed mannequins from mere dummies into characters acting out dramatic scenes. Mrs. Vreeland refused to compromise her artistic vision for historical accuracy, controversially pairing pieces from different time periods and reworking garments to fit within her overall mise-en-scéne. For this she drew criticism from scholars, yet simultaneously created unprecedented surges in attendance, galvanized countless new benefactors and completely revitalized the Costume Institute.

Mrs. Vreeland’s exhibitions became sources of inspiration for contemporary audiences — rather than simply presenting the exquisite costumes of the Ballets Russes or wardrobe from Hollywood films, they became “celebrations” of history. The fourteen shows she mounted ran the gamut from high-fashion designers like Balenciaga and YSL to exotic attire from China’s Ch’ing Dynasty and Hapsburg Austria-Hungary.

Though she remained at the Met until her death in 1989, her greatest contributions surpassed its walls, for she truly shifted the way the world looked at fashion. Mrs. Vreeland introduced the public and press to “fashion as high art” — the idea that garments are just as much masterworks as paintings or sculpture. Furthermore, that the fashion of an era possesses a cultural and historic gravitas that should be studied and immortalized. Seeing the immense popularity of the Vreeland shows, Costume Institutes the world over revamped their own curatorial styles. Without the precedent Mrs. Vreeland set, shows such as Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the Met and Madame Grès La Coutur À L’œuvre at Musée Bourdelle in Paris, among myriad others, would never have been brought to light. 

Photograph by: Patrick Demarchelier  

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