SHE’S the woman who re-invented fashion magazines – and reinvented her own past in the process. She was wildly outspoken, often outrageously so, exotic and influential. Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol were personal friends. But who really knew Diana Vreeland?
The wardrobe of the legendary editor of US Vogue was recently sold for more than £10,000, indicating she is still a fascinating figure 40 years after her reign in glossies. Scottish author Amanda Mackenzie Stuart reveals she never really had any intention of writing a biography of Vreeland. But once she had dipped into her fascinating life, though, she couldn’t stop.
“She popped up at the end of my first book, which was about Consuelo Vanderbilt,” says Mackenzie Stuart. “She should really have just been a paragraph, but after about three-and-a-half days I got sucked in.”
There are the tales of excess and snobbery – she would have her dollar bills ironed before putting them in her purse and had perfume injected into her pillows with hypodermic needles. And her Why Don’t You…? column in Harper’s Bazaar included such advice as “Have a furry elk-kid trunk for the back of your car”, “Turn your old ermine coat into a bathrobe” and “Wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France.”
But Mackenzie Stuart grew more fond of her subject the more she got to know her. “In spite of being rather intimidating, she was extraordinarily positive,” she says. “It’s not that she couldn’t be unkind, because she could – she could be terrible. But she wasn’t bitchy. She was always terrible to your face. The reason people loved her was because positivity flowed out of her.”
Mackenzie Stuart, who will be in Edinburgh next weekend as part of a panel discussion at Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, says that, despite Vreeland’s fabricated past – she claimed to have grown up in belle epoque Paris but was actually the daughter of a trader from Haringey in London – she says: “She had a genuine core. Yes, she made things up about herself. She was somebody who imagined things into existence. There is a story that she had been sitting in a fashion show somewhere and she asked the fashion editor afterwards to get hold of the red dress. In fact it was a green dress, but she’d somehow decided in her head it would have been better in red.”
Vreeland’s influence on the world of fashion can still be felt today. She was an early champion of denim and the bikini. “She was always encouraging designers to use their imagination and to go out on a limb. Those kind of ideas have become so prevalent we don’t even think about it, but she pushed for that all the time. You didn’t just give people what they want, you gave them what they didn’t know they wanted. That is how she influenced fashion and design.
“Many things she said and she thought were really quite radical for their time, particularly against the background of a quite conservative north American readership, but they seem completely banal now. We just accept that we can go and dress up however the mood takes us.
“She encouraged eccentricity. The idea of being yourself, of making decisions for yourself, that really developed with a vengeance right through the 1960s, and she said, ‘Go for it!’”
One of the author’s favourite stories around Vreeland surrounds sending the photographer Norman Parkinson for a fashion shoot in Tahiti. Armed with a plastic city, he was told to track down an Arabian stallion, plait its mane and tail with gold and silver synthetic hair, and photograph it against a backdrop of the plastic buildings.
“She was absolutely convinced there were stallions in Tahiti,” laughs Mackenzie Stuart. But when she was questioned as to the potential pitfalls of this plan, Vreeland merely said: “Don’t bother me with incidentals.”
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart will be taking part in a symposium at the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, 21 July, Summerhall (www.edinburghinternationalfashionfestival.com)
Empress Of Fashion: The Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, published by Harper, £22