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Book review: Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

Photographer Richard Avedon and Diana Vreeland, right, supervise a jewellery fashion shoot at Tiffanys. Picture: Getty

Photographer Richard Avedon and Diana Vreeland, right, supervise a jewellery fashion shoot at Tiffanys. Picture: Getty

  • by LEE RANDALL
 

FASHION doyenne Diana Vreeland deserves a plinth in the Inventors Hall of Fame, such was her gift for self-invention.

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

Thames & Hudson, 410pp, £19.95

At 14 she compiled a list of personal qualities adding up to an idealised creature she called The Girl. In her thirties, this chic clotheshorse – by then married with two sons – joined Harper’s Bazaar, later became editor of Vogue magazine and from there, a special consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Empress of Fashion, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, is the first full-length Vreeland biography, and it’s fascinating, full of bonkers facts and quotes, bolstering a clear-headed narrative that could have gone loop-the-loop in less skilled hands. She admires her subject, but religiously ferrets out the truth. It’s a contrast to Vreeland’s autobiography, DV, which is full of the most outrageously amusing inaccuracies. Still, she believed her fictions wholeheartedly, and lived as though they were accurate, saying: “There’s only one very good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself.”

She was born 29 September, 1903, in Paris, and moved to New York while in swaddling, despite insisting that she’d been raised in the City of Light. Her father, Frederick Dalziel, was also self-invented – not quite the Edwardian English gentleman he appeared to be – until marriage to the American Emily Key Hoffman. Her father ran an investment bank, and his beautiful, flighty daughter was brought up in Manhattan’s high society.

Emily vastly preferred her second, prettier daughter, and regularly lashed out at Diana: “It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her.” Actually Diana also adored Alexandra. Painfully aware that many found her unattractive, she became The Girl – confident, friendly, up-beat – and made a roaring success of it.

She met her future husband, handsome Reed Vreeland, on 4 July 1923. They were engaged by January, but their March marriage was muted because Emily was embroiled in a scandalous, reputation-wrecking scandal that saw her named as co-respondent in a messy divorce. The dynamic with Emily is key for Stuart, who says people made Diana out to be pathologised by her lack of beauty, but feels the better question is: “What was it that allowed Diana to survive her mother’s destructive treatment? An alternative answer is that Diana was a vulnerable child who was saved by the power of her imagination . . . escaping over and over again to the parallel world of her inner eye in a way that became the basis for much of her later success, which would eventually enable her to challenge conventional ideas about female beauty.”

Former colleagues report: “She was perpetually scanning, monitoring, reaching for some idea, sensation, or tangible item . . . that would, in her words, ‘thrill me to madness’. Stuart believes she was actually made euphoric by looking at beauty.

From 1929 to 1935 the Vreelands lived in London, in a beautifully decorated town house near Regent Square, mingling with the richest and most dazzling company. Ever the clothes horse, with the perfect slim figure for showcasing fashion, Diana made frequent trips to Paris couture houses, and made friends with Chanel, whom she greatly admired. But Reed wasn’t a business dynamo, and from 1933 on they struggled. That year Diana opened a lingerie store, catering to well-heeled Londoners. She also embarked on a second wave of self-improvement, skim-reading great literary works. Stuart says: “The most important lesson of her time in Europe was that in the end, style had little do with money. What counted was the divine spark.”

She thought her life was over when Reed was called back to New York, but it was just beginning. Carmel Snow, another legend, hired Diana to work at Harper’s Bazaar in 1936 simply because she was chic. Diana launched her now infamous – oft parodied – ‘Why Don’t You’ column, and one early suggestion was: “Why don’t you waft a big bouquet around like a fairy wand?”

In January 1939, she became their first fashion editor. Snow covered Paris, Vreeland the American designers – which effectively meant New York. Snow wanted her to not simply report on trends, but act as a catalyst to an industry that had always looked to France for inspiration. This, says Stuart, set the tone for the rest of Diana’s career.

As war put France out of bounds, the American sportswear industry flourished – and by extension, Diana, who was a great champion of Claire McCardell, credited by many as one of the first, and best, American designers. She forged a fertile working relationship with photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, launched the career of a stunning teenager called Betty Bacall, and then in 1944 immediately spotted the genius of young Richard Avedon, with whom she did some of her best work.

Stuart writes: “Diana was well aware that American designers projected their ideas onto an idealised version of the modern American woman – who did not look like Diana . . . During the war Diana became aware for the first time that the face and body of the model were just as important as the clothes in projecting the mood of the times.”

Former colleagues describe Diana as a genius who gave off an electric charge and inspired waves of imitation among the ranks of juniors, who began aping her distinctive way of walking and talking. Above all, this relentlessly optimistic woman worked her socks off.

In the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy asked for help in shaping a future first lady’s wardrobe, slanting it away from Europe. Then in 1962, Vreeland moved to Vogue. Asked about her ethos, she replied with typical opacity: “Vogue is the myth of the next reality.” She embraced youthful energy at what had previously been a staid white glove magazine, turning the Vogue reader into The Girl – the idealised self that still propelled her forward. She knew that “what sells is hope”, writes Stuart. “By 1964, Diana was actively challenging conventional American ideas of female beauty, asking Vogue’s readers to look instead at women with vital, distinctive, alluring faces.”

But the changing mood of the nation threw a curveball she couldn’t field. “Diana found it difficult to connect with a construction of the female self that was not primarily driven by style, seemed unable to understand that young women earning their own money had to be careful about how they spent it, and was baffled by the idea that they regarded making themselves alluring during the working day as the least of their worries.”

Readers fled in droves, and Vogue, calling her fashion spreads too aggressive, fired 
her in 1971. Grace Mirabella, her friend, assistant and successor, says: “She could not allow the world to see her intelligence, the method behind her madness. She preferred to remain true to her image, to sink with it than to compromise it by defending her own vision.”

Stuart is excellent on the machinations that saw Diana installed as Special Consultant at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – despite neither her, nor the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving, wanting her in the job. Her remit was “generating ideas for exhibitions, 
organising them, and seeing them through; suggesting sources for additions to the collection and financial gifts; and acting as a link between the Costume Institute and the fashion industry worldwide, and the fashion press.”

Her second show, The Tens, the Twenties, the Thirties: Inventive Clothes 1909 -1939, attracted record crowds and rave reviews. She followed with a Hollywood fashion show, and a show about Russia. At the same time, widowed since 1966, Diana became a party animal – partly to cement relationships that proved invaluable to the museum.

Stuart writes: “Numbers helped to drive Diana out of Vogue. Less than four years later, numbers put her into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s record books... 
‘No curator in the history of the Met ever had a more successful run,’ said Hoving.” Nevertheless, shows were controversial, for she preferred imagery over historical accuracy.

On 2 August, 1989, Vreeland died of a heart attack. Of all her many accomplishments, writes Stuart, perhaps the greatest was to assert the authority of imagination. “From the time she started work at Harper’s Bazaar, Diana asserted a privileged role in fashion for the unconscious mind, and its child, the imagination. The rational mind was, she thought, too often prosaic, too often circumscribed by hesitation and fear.” All of which brought “intoxicating release from the banality of the world”.

 

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