Empress of Fashion

Truth was much less important than fantasy and invention in the self-made world of the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:04


Book Title:
Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion


Amanda Mackenzie Stuart


Guideline Price:

‘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”.

I am so glad I worked with this extraordinary woman (although with is too grand a word; rather, I did her bidding – but then again the bidding was to go to exotic places), a legend in her own lifetime who has continued to be mythic since. She set ground rules that were hard to pre-empt. “The first thing to do is to arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows naturally.” I’d fallen at the first fence.

Fashion in Ardboe, Co Tyrone, depended on how the priest wore his biretta or the tie of a flowery apron, and we had been taught not to be deceived by ornament.

I speedily untaught myself under Vreeland’s tutelage. Her world was all invention, eclecticism, freakishness, style and narrow-to-the-bone. The world I had come from knew nothing of invention: everything was old, organic and decaying – and the fatter the better.

There were a lot of freaks – inbreeding tends towards that – but we didn’t, as they say, remark on them. And of course there were freaks aplenty at Vogue , though they were called models.

I invented like mad in that office, which has now taken on a legendary status, like Coco Chanel’s drawing room on Rue Cambon or Elsa Schiaparelli’s brown study. “I hate exoticism, because it’s so silly,” said Vreeland. “My office? Just a big black lacquer desk, a leopardskin carpet, leopardskin upholstery and scarlet walls.”

She was absolutely at home in the further reaches of unhinged imagination. Listening to her talking about clothes was to hear voluptuous pleasure in the art of couture. She talked about colour like no one else: “When I say orange, I don’t mean yellow- orange, I mean red-orange, the orange of Bakst and Diaghilev, the orange that changed the century,” or, “The best red to copy is the colour of any child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.”

So who was she exactly? Strike the word exactly and insert mysterious, perfectionist, obsessional, the editor-in chief of American Vogue in the 1960s and special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, when the maverick Thomas Hoving was director.

Chronicling fashion
Next: why is book after book published about an erstwhile boss of that most fugitive of objects, an eclectic monthly woman’s magazine chronicling fashion, that most fragile section of history?

The answer: she was a powerful woman, a catalyst, an imperious, didactic creature of fascination: a creator of fantasy, a wild card, whose style stamped a decade, whose inventiveness, mad concepts and whimsical pronouncements survive 50 years later and who, in her own wild way, brought Vogue to its knees and nearly ruined its finances in the process. She was a genius, if energy is a form of genius. (“I’m an idearist,” she said. “I have these spasms of ideas.”)

Hoving said that Vreeland had a particular form of creativity that had nothing to do with book learning – “She created her entire life to hide the fact that she was mundane” – and Truman Capote wrote, with a happy nod to himself, “She’s a genius, but she’s the kind of genius that very few people will recognise, because you have to have genius yourself to recognise it. Otherwise you just think she’s a rather foolish woman.”

She could be sharp as a tack. Mackenzie Stuart tells the story of her riposte to a “scruffy radical feminist” who challenged Vogue ’s emphasis on surface decoration and explained that she had no wish to be any man’s plaything. “If that’s the case, my dear,” said Vreeland, “you haven’t got a worry in the world.”

The film Funny Face was based on her. I have six books about her in my library and a DVD ( Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel ). You might well think all this smacks of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Mackenzie Stuart has gone some way to doing this – there is so much detail heaped upon detail that you almost get Vreelanded out – but she has a wry sense of humour and is not reverent, as so many writers are when genuflecting to this high priestess of fashion.

Her life is so well documented that it would be easy to cobble together a book, but Mackenzie Stuart is much more diligent, scrupulous and research-based than that. Perhaps a little disingenuously, she writes that a full biography of Vreeland has not been published before, but she has quarried at least two fine comprehensive earlier books, one by Eleanor Dwight, the other, the brilliant memoir In My Fashion , by Bettina Ballard, not to mention the glammed-up, soi-disant autobiography, called DV , as told by Her Nibs to George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill.

Mackenzie Stuart is excellent on Vreeland’s razzle-dazzle early family life in Paris and New York, on her unhappy adolescence (“If I thought of myself I wanted to kill myself; I thought I was the most hideous thing in the world”), as well as on her triumphant new career (after being ignominiously sacked from Vogue at 70) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There, she transformed a somewhat neglected basement collection into her own spectacular, glittering domain. Mackenzie Stuart’s analysis of her time there – disobeying curatorial and academic rules yet bringing more than 800,000 people into some shows – is riveting social history and subtly reveals the tussle between ethics, probity and greed at the museum. Hoving later remarked, “No curator in the history of the Met ever had a more successful run than Diana Vreeland.”

There is much that is new to me here, including excerpts from her diaries, which touchingly and presciently track her determined evolution from an ungainly adolescent (“I simply must be more perfect. Although I am getting better every day I am not ‘there’ yet”) into a popular deb and finally into the assemblage called the Girl, whose ambition and passion and yearning for acclaim were the basis for the Vreeland construct (“I always looked rich. I’ve spent so much money in my life that it’s almost taken the place of the real thing”).

Paradoxically, one never gets to the interior secret of this woman who added so much colour and joy to life, who displayed so much surface, but Mackenzie Stuart has done a valiant job of probing and dissecting below the famous carapace and coming up with a fat, enjoyable, unnecessary book.