In today’s magazine world, where high fashion glossies are ruled by seemingly distant and taciturn editors focused both on trends and circulation, the thought that a creature such as Diana Vreeland ever existed is extraordinary.
The former editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who went on to a short-but-influential stint at Vogue in the 1960s before being notoriously fired in 1971, was a character and a personality in the finest sense. At least that’s the impression Amanda Mackenzie Stuart leaves us with in her meticulously researched “Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland.”
Vreeland comes across as an eccentric, turban-wearing aunt — think of a career-focused Mame flapping about editorial meetings. The tales seem never ending: She discovered Lauren Bacall, helped Jackie Kennedy choose an inaugural ball gown, ushered Vogue through the bumpy 1960s youthquake in fashion, and then, when her career seemed to be in the dustbin, she went on to stage record-breaking fashion exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It’s no wonder that 2012 turned into the year of Diana (say it with me, Dee-ana). A documentary released earlier this year, “The Eye Must Travel,” also focused on her larger-than-life story. Stuart performs the formidable task of researching the entirety of Vreeland’s life, carefully recounting adventures from her early days through her death in 1989 at 86.
A child of the belle époque, she was a one-woman show who never quite let go of the essence of the era, and her gaiety and penchant for drama were captured in fictionalized accounts such as the stage musical “Lady in the Dark,” and the films “Funny Face” and “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?”
She was a fountain of bon mots in her “Why Don’t You?” column in Harper’s. The idea of American housewives in 1936 reading advice such as “Why Don’t You rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?” and “Why Don’t You embroider enormous red lobsters on a pure heavy silk tablecloth . . .” gives a hint of her larger-than life existence.
Stuart digs deep into how Vreeland created herself. A disinterested mother and cruel nanny berated Vreeland over her unconventional looks, leaving her with a damaged self-image but strengthening a plan Vreeland hatched as a teenager to eventually live with flair, land a debonair husband, a career, and, naturally, clothes. By the time she was in her 30s, Vreeland had achieved all.
It’s no wonder then that part of Vreeland’s lore was her fictionalized youth, which served as an escape from the unpleasantness. Throughout the first several chapters of “Empress,” Stuart does her best to distinguish the difference between the continental, star-studded youth Vreeland presented as her own, and the one that she actually lived. Naturally Vreeland’s fictionalization version is far more fun. Who cares if Charles Lindbergh’s plane didn’t fly over Vreeland in Brewster, N.Y.? It makes for an entertaining anecdote.
“She was an amalgam of stories and half-truths and outright lies that served her ideal, and which sometimes seemed a charade” designer Bill Blass is quoted as saying . “[B]ut in New York, among kindred souls, she was utterly comprehended.”
Vreeland’s life story is culled from Stuart’s interviews with acquaintances, and accounts that have appeared in previous biographies. Even with her exhaustive academic approach, Stuart has fun with Vreeland’s history, capturing the celebrated editor’s quirky cadence of speech and her love of bold interiors and bawdy dinner parties. Stuart’s approach is so thorough that those without a strong background in fashion may grow tired of long descriptions of trends, designers, and photographers. Seven decades worth of fashion history can be a challenge.
“Empress” never feels like intellectual history because Vreeland wasn’t about making fashionable inaccessible. During World War II, she threw her support behind American designers, championing the idea of the fresh American girl. She gutted Vogue’s dusty ethos in the 1960s and championed rising avant-garde photographers, designers, and models. She styled photospreads that looked more like high art than a showcase for clothes.
Because Vreeland seldom stopped for self-reflection, Stuart has a challenging time of documenting the emotions behind Vreeland’s bold makeup and perfectly lacquered hair. But in looking at Vreeland’s forward charge Stuart catches the breathlessness of the editor who had a profound influence on magazines 80 years after beginning her career.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.