Diana Vreeland, Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi, Coco Chanel, and Iris Apfel redefined beauty in their own terms
In the upcoming documentary Iris, by the late Albert Maysles, Iris Apfel, the 93 year-old fashion icon remembers a time when a woman told her “you’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty.” At a recent screening, the crowd gasped, but then Apfel continues, “it doesn’t matter. You have something much better,” this woman tells her, “you have style.”
For an industry where pretty reigns, fashion has also been a haven for those who may not necessarily fit into society’s idealized standards of beauty. Instead of spending her life attempting to make herself fit in to the norm, Apfel embraced, even played up her idiosyncrasies, established a successful design business with her husband, traveled the world, and became a fashion icon in her eighties for her over-the-top aesthetic. Her style and clothing collection have been showcased at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; she’s been photographed in fashion editorials in avant-garde publications like Dazed; and she’s starred in campaigns for designers like Alexis Bittar and Kate Spade.
Apfel is not the only fashionista to have taken negative opinions about their looks and turned them on their head, becoming incredibly influential women in the process. For editor and muse Isabella Blow, her eccentricities were both a desire to create a larger-than-life universe, fit for her aristocratic background, as well as a response to feelings of self-loathing that that often plagued her. “It pains me to say so, but I’m ugly,” she was often quoted as saying, and you could see then how she hid behind her clothes: an architectural hat by Philip Treacy to obscure her face, brightly-colored shoes that drew attention away from it.
While the feelings of inadequacy ultimately destroyed Blow, others managed to re-make themselves in their own images, founding commercial empires, and becoming legends even while they were still alive. Coco Chanel struggled through a difficult childhood, her mother died young and her father left her in an orphanage “I’m not pretty,” she would say to her lover Arthur “Boy” Capel, who also supported her business. “Of course you’re not pretty,” Capel would respond, “but I have nothing more beautiful than you.” Chanel never married and instead focused on building a fashion empire whose influence and allure run deeper than perhaps any other house—little black dresses, pearl necklaces, and Chanel No. 5.
Then there’s Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor extraordinaire, whose unique character was captured in classic movies like Funny Face, and who transformed the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum Art into what it is today. Vreeland, much like Chanel, rewrote her own history, figuratively (but also literally, as she loved to embellish her life here and there), in her autobiography D.V. In it, she recounts how when she was young her mother said to her “it’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her.” It’s no surprise that Vreeland later admitted she “never felt confident about her looks” until she married her husband. Vreeland never tried to conform to the standards of beauty, and in fact made her mark calling for other women to do the same, with her column in Harper’s Bazaar, where she asked women things like “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?,” and “Why don’t you have every room done up in every color green? This will take months, years, to collect, but it will be delightful – a mélange of plants, green glass green porcelains, and furniture covered in sad greens, gay greens, clear, faded and poison greens?” For Vreeland, beauty was in the hidden, and the exotic.
The French have a term for this (of course they do) “jolie laide,” which translates to “pretty/ugly.” But being described as “jolie laide” is not just about physical appearance, it takes into consideration the whole being. Carine Roitfeld, editor in chief of CR Fashion Book, dedicated her latest issue to the “jolie laide,” a term that could be used to describe the editrix herself. “In fashion, it’s always better to be an interesting person than a beautiful one,” begins her editor’s letter, “character is much more fascinating than pure good looks.” It is a secret rule that has been reigning the inner world of the fashion industry. The world gets a perfectly blonde, big-breasted Kate Upton as it’s new it-girl, meanwhile the fashion world drools over androgynous odd birds like Antonina Petkovic and Mica Arganaraz.
Even Anna Piaggi, the eccentric Italian Vogue editor laughed when Karl Lagerfeld once said of her, “Is she pretty? No, she is worse!,” echoing the thoughts of 19th century actress Marie Dorval, who was quoted by Jean Baudrillard as saying, “I’m not beautiful, I’m worse.” Piaggi, and the rest of these women, had no interest in being pretty – or at least pretty in the way that society deems is pretty, which is usually an interpretation of whatever men think is pretty – rather, they are interested in the self-fulfillment of their own desires. Beautiful, indeed.