Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

Women’s History Month giveaway: Win a copy of this book!

Book cover: Empress of Fashion by Amanda Mackenzie StuartDiana Dalziel was born in 1903 to a life of extreme privilege. With a wealthy father and a mother who had deep roots in New York society circles, Diana could have easily chosen to marry well and settle into the life of a well-kept society woman. Instead, she married well and ended up making an indelible mark on fashion as editor-in-chief at Vogue. Rather than settle down to retire, she then became the fashion consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, turning the dowdy affair into something more along the lines of the star-studded fashion event it is today. Jacqueline Kennedy turned to her for fashion advice. Truman Capote and Andy Warhol were but two of a revolving cast of famous people who came and went through her doors. Designers’ careers were launched with her support. Some argue that she even created the concept of “fashion editor.” And remarkably, twenty-five years after her death, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Empress of Fashion is the first full-length biography ever written about her.

I have to hand it to Stuart: I probably would have gone insane trying to write this book. If there’s one thing Diana (pronounced Dee-Ana) was known for, it was embellishing the truth. Take her childhood, for instance. She was born in Paris and lived there only briefly before moving to the United States; Diana was still an infant. They grew up here all along. To hear Diana tell it, though, she had a marvelous European childhood and had the worst time transitioning to life in the States. She and her sister couldn’t speak a word of English and were miserable at school; as such, she barely learned a thing.

It was true that Diana was probably miserable at school, but it had nothing to do with language. Diana was a bit of an outcast growing up, always out-shined by her beautiful, intelligent, talented younger sister, Alexandra. By comparison, Diana was an ugly duckling, and her image-conscious mother never let her forget it. But whatever Diana lacked in the looks she was born with, she made up for by paying attention to the smallest details. Beauty and appearance were everything to her, and the ability to come across as cultured and refined was of the utmost importance. It didn’t hurt that she had strong personality and a colorful way with words; as an adult, she would be the life of the party.

After she got married, Vreeland caught the eye of Harper’s Bazaar‘s Carmel Snow. It was 1936, and fashion magazines — Vogue especially — were mostly created as publications for society women. Times were changing, though, and even though Vreeland had never worked a day in her life, Snow thought that Vreeland and her impeccable taste were just what Harper’s Bazaar needed. It took a while to figure out what to do with Vreeland, but she eventually won over the hearts of readers with her zany advice column, “Why Don’t You?” She was the final word on refined taste, giving middle class readers a humorous chance to imagine how the other half lived. Some examples:

Why Don’t You rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?

Why Don’t You bring back from Central Europe a huge white Baroque porcelain stove to stand in your front hall, reflected in the parquet?

Why Don’t You give to the wife of your favorite band leader an entire jazz band made of tiny baguette diamonds and cabochon emeralds, in the forms of a bracelet from Marou?

She worked her way up the ladder at Harper’s Bazaar during the 1940s and 1950s but kept getting shut out of the top spot by Carmel Snow. It was frustrating: under Vreeland’s exacting hand, the magazine had been revitalized. It continued to be outsold by Vogue, but it was certainly the more daring and fashion-forward of the two. When Vreeland decided she’d had enough, Vogue was more than happy to snap her up. She wasn’t hired as editor-in-chief, but she ignored her superiors’ demands and did things her own way; Vreeland was clearly in charge now, and after a few months, formally took control. During her tenure at Vogue in the 1960s, Vreeland would give the magazine a younger appeal to reflect the “youthquake” happening across the country. Her originality, creativity, and uncanny ability to spot The Next Big Thing before it happened established her legacy as the Empress of Fashion.

Ironically, it would be the women’s liberation movement that would be her undoing. The free-spirited 1960s had been well-suited to Vreeland’s artistic view, which was based more in fantasy than reality. But with droves of women now headed into the workforce, reality was just what they wanted and needed. Vogue readers started demanding practical fashion advice that could be applied to their professional lives, not the couture pieces that existed only for magazine spreads. Vreeland didn’t fully understand this was a problem until she was fired for it. Stuart writes:

[Vreeland] had no sympathy for doctrinaire feminists. Like many powerful women who had succeeded before female success was commonplace, she had difficulty understanding what the problem was, particularly since, in a perfect world, she would have preferred a life of leisure. She thought that professional young women of the 1970s were conformist and conservative. … As feminism took hold, Diana’s attachment to her romantic ideal of female power made her inflexible.

Devastating though that was, Vreeland, who was almost 70 by that time, had one final period of creativity left to share with the world. Hired as a consultant to revitalize MOMA’s boring Costume Institute, Vreeland would be tasked with coming up with exhibits that would draw crowds. After her first exhibit (a Balenciaga retrospective) was successful, Vreeland could do no wrong (for the most part; her exhibits were so successful and inspired that most criticisms were ignored).

Stuart does an admirable job of bringing Vreeland’s quirks and mannerisms to life. As I mentioned before, it could not have been an easy biography to write! So much of what Vreeland shared with the world was a performance that guaranteed her position as the life of the party. People loved her for it, but that certainly made doing the detective work to parse the truth much harder. Ultimately, though, Stuart managed to write a nicely-paced biography that is both entertaining and fascinating.

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland was published in December 2012 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 

Goodreads | Amazon
I read it as a(n): ARC
Source: Publisher
Pages: 432

In honor of Women’s History Month, Harper Books was kind enough to provide one copy of Empress of Fashion for a giveaway! To enter, fill out the form below by April 6, 2013 at 11:59 p.m. CT (US only). Good luck! This giveaway has now ended.

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