Empress of Fashion
Truth was much less important than fantasy and invention in the self-made world of the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland
Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
‘I’ve always been so flattered that anyone, whatever his status, feels he can ask me to a party.” Have you ever read anything so ambiguously grand, so self-serving, so sexist, so solipsistic as that remark?
You can read plenty more in Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland . “Why don’t you use a gigantic shell instead of a bucket to ice your champagne?” “Unshined shoes are the end of civilisation.” “Communism is okay if you’ve got a car and a driver.”
Well, that last one isn’t in this book, but she said it, I swear, just as she advised us to rinse our blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold.
I first read these apercus as a young person and had little thought of how useful they would be in my own dear family life in Co Tyrone. I was just enthralled by the raving glamour. And when I went to Manhattan to work for Vreeland, my idol (who had created the legendary column “Why Don’t You?” for Harper’s Bazaar , where she worked for 28 years as fashion editor before moving to Vogue , in 1962), the glamour fantasy, fakery and style never dimmed. (“Keep your secret,” she once said. “That’s your power over others.”)
I have twice been asked to write her biography, and sometimes I feel like the recipient of Browning’s famous question “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?” when I am asked to speak about her for books, programmes and documentaries – and indeed how strange it seems, and new!
How shall I describe the effect of a summons from her? Perhaps like a scene out of Tolstoy where Napoleon summons an adjutant to his campaign tent and, on the way, the young officer nearly dies of fright. Just so did I go into her office, where a delegation of beauty editors stared at me peevishly. “Now tell the truth, Polleeeeee, do you ever put soap and water near that skin?”
That very morning I had scrubbed my face with New York’s finest H2O, but I knew that I must have no truck with the truth (truth as such didn’t exist in that leopardskin and scarlet office where fantasy was verity). “No, Mrs Vreeland,” I said. “Never.” I could see that important honour (not mine) was satisfied.
Her life was her own contrivance, on which she perched, triumphant. She was born ugly (or was made to believe so by her mother, who called her an ugly little monster), and in a cold world of conventional good looks she invented a wizard appearance and stuck to it.
She was a slave to les petits soins (it took her three hours to do her face in the morning) and was always impeccable, down to the soles of her shoes, which her French maid polished with rhinoceros horn.
When I first met her I heard her before I saw her and was knocked back by the voice, ricocheting around, a boomerang going back to its sender, only to be spun away again bearing another sibylline pronouncement.
A minute later and I was dazzled by the apparition: huge mouth, high nose, bright red cheeks and ear lobes, burnished black-on-black lacquered hair, the edge and cut and glitter of her chic, the slanting, knowing black eyes.
Mackenzie Stuart describes her as having “the appearance of a multifaceted artifact herself, a creature of planes, angles and polished surfaces, interpretable from multiple viewpoints, frequently in motion and in vivid colour”.