Empress of fashion : a life of Diana Vreeland

She was not a pretty child, but it was stingingly cruel for Diana Dalziel’s mother to tell the young girl that she was ugly. The mother and sister were beauties, and the contrast with young Diana was even more obvious. After a miserable childhood, the teenaged Diana, or De-e-e-e-ahna as she said it was to be pronounced, took charge of her own life and created The Girl. After that there was no stopping this jolie laide who went on to become Diana Vreeland, a major power broker behind twentieth century fashion as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, editor in chief at Vogue, and special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. In this rich, compelling new biography, based on extensive research using Vreeland’s letters, diaries, and personal papers, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart provides fresh material on the life of Vreeland whose own autobiography, D.V., while spirited leaves out many facts. And there is Eleanor Dwight’s Diana Vreeland which captures Vreeland’s accomplishments and is lavishly illustrated with photographs.

Vreeland created and molded her personality and image until it was iconic--perfect qualities for a future fashion editor. Everything was unmistakable from the ramrod-straight posture, black dyed and heavily lacquered hair, red-polished fingernails on the most expressive hands which she used to great dramatic effect with one hand rarely minus a cigarette. And the Vreeland patois was a combination of a very formal manner of speech, peppered with disreputable, definitely not politically correct, phrases and words, and all of it delivered in her version of a mid-Atlantic accent, with rolled "r"s and commanding voice. Check out this Youtube for a little taste of the editor in charge, and for a preview of the film, Diana Vreeland:  the eye has to travel, which the library owns.

Throughout her life she was extremely disciplined, organized, and demanded the same of others. Driven, passionate, curious and never bored and therefore never boring because there was little in the world that she did not find interesting. The only thing predictable about her was the unexpected, so as for thinking outside of the box, she never knew there was a box to be in or out of. With an eye for what was unique, special and ahead of its time she plucked people out of obscurity and launched their careers. It was Vreeland who spotted the young Betty, later Lauren, Bacall, and had her photographed for Vogue; and there were others like Penelope Tree and Lauren Hutton who gave a fresh look to fashion; Vogue magazine was lifted out of its economic and fashion doldrums to include articles about the arts, politics, and not just the staid and accepted; a young first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, sought Vreeland’s advice on fashion; numerous photographers, fashion designers, and others were discovered by her and all of it is documented in this fascinating book.

As a fashion editor she was parodied in several works. That coat-throwing-office-entrance in The Devil Wears Prada was pure Vreeland and not Anna Wintour. Ali MacGraw long ago was one of those gofer office girls, and claims that she tossed Vreeland’s coat right back at her. In the movie Funny Face there is Kay Thompson as fashion editor Maggie Prescott singing “Think Pink” to spur her staff on to promote the latest fashion trend. Vreeland actually said, “Pink is the navy blue of India.”

And there are numerous memorable quotes, some insightful, others just zingers. Fashion jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane was dressing a mannequin in one of Vreeland’s exhibits and had used only diamond stud earrings and a single strand of pearls. Finding it all too demure, Vreeland bellowed out, “My God, she’s not a debutante!” Lane immediately got it and piled on the strands of pearls. To someone else’s comment about a model’s over-the-top look, Vreeland told them, “If you want the girl next door, then go next door!” And another could be the mantra of modern advertising, “Give ’em what they never knew they wanted!” A spin off on that last one is exactly what librarians do in providing excellent reader’s advisory--connecting patrons with books they never knew existed.

This is most definitely a biography for fashionistas, but also for others because Diana Vreeland’s life offers insights into power, artistic innovation, creating and recreating one’s life despite the odds and setbacks, and the drive to envision something different and make it a reality. She was a commanding presence with a demanding manner as editor and then curator. And Diana Vreeland had innate, powerful ideas about good PR and fresh ideas, most of which cannot be taught or manufactured. She was an original!

Other must-reads for the informed on fashion: A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters. Carmel Snow is the one who first hired Vreeland to work at Harper’s Bazaar,and Snow also was a very powerful fashion editor; Allure; Front row : Anna Wintour, the Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue's Editor in Chief; Tiffany in fashion. There is a lengthy essay in this book by Eleanor Lambert, another important figure in fashion history because of her PR expertise; Grace: a memoir. In addition the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection has many books on the people written about in Empress of Fashion--check the catalog.