Diana Vreeland, 1903-1989: The Scarlet Empress of Fashion

Empress of Fashion A Life of Diana Vreeland
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Harper 536 pages

All the stories that circulate about editrices of Vogue make a colorful mosaic of anecdotes.  There are the tales of Anna Wintour’s dislike of elevators, and her consequent habit of being conveyed  upstairs in makeshift palanquins by young lackeys, there are the ones of Jessica Daves, Vreeland’s predecessor in the top spot, who is reported to have said, “NO!” to a skirt three or four inches above the knee, very ill advisedly in 1962.  But neither of these ladies, however idiosyncratic, was ever a patch on Vreeland, who was a walking agglomeration of eccentricities.  

She was also a mass of contradictions: famous for having been born to privilege, but working for a living from her thirties onwards; for having been born ugly to a beautiful mother, for having been the unattractive half of an attractive couple.  Diana Vreeland was  one of those women who confront immediately in life the trouble that their pretty colleagues only discover past forty, that beauty and style are not synonymous, that developing the one is not contingent upon the other. Beauty may be truth, but is certainly not elegance.  Elegance, it turns out, like character or manners, is developed by choice.

Diana Vreeland though learned this lesson early during her childhood in New York. Growing up in the shadow of her famously lovely mother Diana developed her strengths. She was clever, imaginative, and had an entrepreneur’s instinct for opportunity and talent.  After her early marriage to T. Reed Vreeland, she spent several years in London during the 1930s and it was there that her tastes were refined.  She wore couture, but favored the severe lines of Chanel and Mainbocher, while, by contrast, advocating the wildest and most colorful interior decoration.

When, towards the end of the thirties Vreeland’s job called him back to New York, she found herself at a loose end. She had two young boys in the nursery, a thorough knowledge of clothes and a pressing need for extra income.  Contrary to one of her more celebrated anecdotes – that she had been spotted at El Morocco dancing in a Chanel gown like an editorial version of Lana Turner – she was actually poached from a small job she at Town and Country, by the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow, and thereby, found her avocation. She soon became notorious as the writer of the Why Don’t You…? column, full of whimsical advice for readers.

This biography takes a more methodical approach to the tangle of accounts left by Diana, than some earlier attempts.  There is, as Ms Stuart points out, the problem of sifting Diana’s own words, particularly in DV, her thoroughly enjoyable but notoriously untrustworthy autobiography. Ms Stuart carefully attempts to create a reasonable timeline for Diana’s early life that strips away some of Diana Vreeland’s own myth-making.  Possibly Ms. Vreeland might not have appreciated this, but the effect is to make her not less appealing, but more so.  The fact is, and despite being born into moderate wealth, Diana Vreeland was a self-made woman.

Empress of Fashion also does a wonderful job of highlighting the true heyday of Vreeland, which was not the sixties, best remembered for her out-of-the-blue obiter dicta concerning pink and its utilitarianism in India, but the forties, specifically, the War years. It was then, in a New York denuded of men, that Carmel Snow and Vreeland, together with a number of extraordinarily talented young female designers, invented American Sportswear.   This was the template of American fashion upon which it has  been cut ever since, a unique pattern of comfort, practicality and sleek elegance.

Unlike its European antecedents, American Design was founded upon the structures of the human body.  Here were clothes that took their form from function from the inside outward, transmitting the message of kinetic energy from muscle to material rather than imposing a carapace from outside in and in the process impeding motion.

For a few brief years, clothes were natural, and shoes were flat or low heeled, until 1947, when Dior’s triumphant New Look corseted women breathless, swaddled them in fabric, and set them tottering on high heels into the post war world.  Not surprisingly, neither Vreeland nor Snow ever wore the New Look, no matter what charming things they wrote about it in the pages of Bazaar.

When some years later Vreeland was passed over for the head office at Bazaar (the spot went to Snow’s niece), she was lured to Vogue, where she became famous for her oddities: her name always pronounced DEE ANH, her polished shoe soles, her endless clarifications regarding color which clarified nothing.    She had searched all her life, she said, for the perfect red, and never found it.

What this book does best is to peer between all the brightly colored strands of confetti like chit chat in mid century America, and identify behind them, the two great contributions of Vreeland: American Sportswear and important museum exhibits of clothing.

This latter achievement she accomplished in old age when, having been ousted from Vogue, she took on the position of Special Consultant to the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.  This resulted in some surprisingly popular shows. The one for Balenciaga alone brought in more than 150,000 visitors.  Diana’s contacts and her unfailing instinct for showmanship were largely responsible for its success.

“Do not be too hard on vanity,” Diana said in old age. “Vanity has given a discipline.”

If so, in a world full of tracksuits and obesity, it seems to be a vice we’ve lost in favor of others self indulgence and conformity.  She would have despised both.







2 thoughts on “Diana Vreeland, 1903-1989: The Scarlet Empress of Fashion

  1. Chances are you’ve already read S.J. Perelmans sendup of Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You?” columns. Priceless. It’s archived on the New Yorker’s website.

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