Book Review: Empress of Fashion

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.


Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland is exceptional. D. V., as she was sometimes called, was born in Paris in 1903 to an English father and American mother, and though she fashioned herself a European at heart, she was undeniably American, with her penchant for self-invention, belief in second chances, and strong work ethic. The resilient Diana’s vivid imagination and love of dance granted her respite from a turbulent home life, with a philandering mother who clearly favored Diana’s younger sister and bemoaned Diana’s “ugliness”.

Stuart’s prose flows so easily and she has such a knack for description that the biography reads like a novel. To be sure, Vreeland’s life was indeed fantastical, in large part due to her embellishment of her personal life, her love of “faction,” as she called it. Did she really see Charles Lindbergh as he flew over her childhood home? Not likely. Did Buffalo Bill Cody actually give her private horseback riding lessons? That one’s actually true. More importantly, did she really grow up in France as she long claimed, starting school in New York as an adolescent not speaking a word of English? Absolutely not – records show Diana’s family moved back to the States when she was a baby. These and other outlandish stories only enhanced her mystique.

After marrying the dashing Reed Vreeland, Diana quickly had two sons and then entered the working world as no less than fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar in 1936, working alongside the legendary editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, who chose Vreeland for her sense of style and her exuberant personality – and D. V. did not disappoint. She spent decades at Bazaar, and later at Vogue (more on the defection later), helping to launch the careers of such legendary designers, photographers, and models as Oscar de la Renta, Richard Avedon, Lauren Hutton, and Veruschka along the way. More importantly, she championed the American fashion industry and made fashion into a dream world for the readers of her magazines, a great escape from the “banality” of everyday life, as she put it. Vreeland also encouraged American women to dress for themselves and their own pleasure, rather than obey any conventions societal norms might require.

After being passed over for the editor-in-chief position at Bazaar, Vreeland took the reins at rival magazine Vogue and quickly brought it back to the forefront with extravagant photo shoots, the inclusion of ethnically diverse models, and editorials capturing the zeitgeist of the day. When budget concerns and other issues proved too much for the head honchos at Vogue’s publisher Condé Nast, she was unceremoniously fired. A stunning blow, yes, but she rallied, and her dazzling final act was as special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s long-slumbering Costume Institute, and her lavish exhibitions on everything from the fashions of Yves Saint Laurent to Hollywood costumes from the Golden Age would break all attendance records for the Met.

Stuart clearly has respect for her subject all the while painting an honest portrait of this fiercely talented, passionate woman who forever transformed the face of American fashion. Stuart’s impeccable research lets the reader in to Vreeland’s complicated but fascinating world without sugarcoating the less appealing aspects of her personality. Was she a tyrant at work? A genius? Both? Cue the inevitable comparisons to Vogue’s current editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, but little matter. The ultimate tastemaker, Vreeland was a force of nature who left an indelible mark on 20th-century American culture.

For more on D. V., check out The Eye Has to Travel (the title is taken from one of her most famous quotes) by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, its accompanying documentary, and Eleanor Dwight’s biography. D. V., her “autobiography” as dictated to George Plimpton, was an instant hit, though the facts leave something to be desired – as Plimpton himself put it, he cared little whether any of it was true, “the interesting thing was the way Mrs. Vreeland told it.” She was also famously parodied by Kay Thompson (incidentally, the creator of Eloise) in the 1957 Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, in which the fearsome Maggie Prescott (a dead ringer for Vreeland) exhorts everyone to “THINK PINK.” Legend has it that after Vreeland saw the film, she declared, “Never to be discussed.”

In the end, renowned photographer Richard Avedon put it best when summing up Diana Vreeland’s career – she, quite simply, invented the job of fashion editor: “Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies.” Don’t miss Stuart’s eminently readable biography. As D. V. herself put it: “Do it Big. Do it Right. Give it Class.” In other words, Read this Book.

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