Review: Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

The fact that style arbiter Diana Vreeland had a famously uneven relationship with what less imaginative people call the truth makes her a challenging, if delicious, subject for biography. But British writer Stuart is clearly equal to the task in this entertaining, authoritative study that reads like a novel begging to be made into a movie.

Vreeland is best known for her 18-year tenure as Vogue’s influential, imperious editor-in-chief in the ’60s and ’70s. But her quest for the escape fashion offers dates to her privileged upbringing in New York. The ugly-duckling daughter of a glamorous, distant mother, young Diana laboured to cultivate a distinctive style that won her friends, celebrity and a too-handsome husband. The couple made a splash in Europe among the likes of Coco Chanel and Cecil Beaton before returning to America, where Diana became notorious for her Harper’s Bazaar “Why Don’t You?” column. (Typical advice: “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, the way they do in France?”)

Hired at Vogue in 1963, at age 61, Vreeland shocked with her bold choices. Her own eccentricities—fondness for lacquered red walls, a Kabuki-like appearance, and sphinx-like pronouncements (“Pink is the navy blue of India”)—sealed her legend. But fashion is fickle; she was turfed in 1981 but would resurface for one last act: staging blockbuster exhibits for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Stuart’s deft portrayal is full of context and detail, such as Vreeland’s reaction at hearing president Kennedy had been shot: “My God, Lady Bird [Johnson] in the White House. We can’t use her in the magazine!” Such utterances make her easy to mock, though Stuart never does. Rather, she presents Vreeland as a complex trailblazer—a self-invented woman who put her stamp on modern fashion and thrived professionally into her 70s. And she never stopped, even when she could no longer see the lovely surfaces that had given her life its meaning.




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