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As fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, she wrote the popular “Why Don’t You?” feature, which inspired two New Yorker parodies and endless imitations. She also suggested the iconic Popover to Claire McCardell and helped put the designer on the map. As editor in chief of Vogue, she celebrated the youthquake of the Sixties and pushed editorial fashion fantasy further than it had ever gone before. As special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum, she transformed traditionally dull museum shows of clothes by adding fantasy, drama and pizzazz — not to mention period backdrops, soundtracks and even fragrances. She inspired Liza Elliott, the central figure in the 1941 musical “Lady in the Dark,” and Maggie Prescott, the fashion editor in the 1956 film “Funny Face.”
Diana Vreeland, who died at 86 in 1989, was in fact the most famous fashion editor of the 20th century but, until now, no full-scale biography has ever been devoted to her. Her charming memoir, “D.V.,” has a rather glancing relationship with the truth, while Eleanor Dwight’s estimable “Diana Vreeland” is more of a picture book. Now Amanda Mackenzie Stuart has written “Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland” (Harper/HarperCollins) with the cooperation of the Vreeland family.
Stuart says that before she began to research her, she thought of Vreeland as “a sort of scary, hip elderly lady who had fabulous exhibitions at the Met,” who put Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, into an exhibition called “American Women of Style.” But when she began to delve into Vreeland’s background, Stuart was fascinated. The distinctive and imaginative issues of Harper’s Bazaar the editor had overseen were a revelation. This is Stuart’s second biography; the first was “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age.”
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Vreeland, who was born Diana Dalziel, always had difficulties with her mother, the former Emily Hoffman, a moody society beauty whose mother was a member of the Four Hundred and a descendant of Francis Scott Key. Emily doted on her younger daughter, Alexandra, who was also a beauty, but considered Diana, who had a prominent nose, to be ugly and difficult. The girls’ nanny, Kay Carroll, disliked Diana, too.
Speaking of this, Diana said, “All I knew was that my mother wasn’t proud of me. I was always her ugly little monster.” Her maternal grandmother, Mary Weir, however, loved her intelligence and imagination, and at her death, when Diana was 16, left her a house, which she had named Villa Diana, and $20,000 for its upkeep.
Diana, by force of sheer will, transformed herself into a glamorous young woman and popular debutante. In March 1924, two days before she married the handsome, dapper banker T. Reed Vreeland, her mother was named as a corespondent in the divorce case between Sir Charles and Lady Ross. Emily had been flagrantly unfaithful to her husband, Frederick Dalziel, with the British bounder Ross, among, apparently, many others.
“They clearly had a great affinity for one another,” Stuart says of the young Vreelands. “They were both absolutely fascinated by aesthetics and the appearance of things, and it drew them very close together.”
The young couple lived in Albany, N.Y., for several years, where they had two sons, then in London from 1929 to 1935, and Diana became a mannequin du monde, a young society woman who was able to get couture clothes at substantially reduced prices because she wore them so well. She was a client of Coco Chanel, Madeleine de Vionnet and Mainbocher, and she became friendly with Mona Williams, Millicent Rogers, Daisy Fellowes and the Vicomtesse de Noailles.
When they returned to the U.S., Carmel Snow offered Diana a job at Harper’s Bazaar, and “Why Don’t You?” was born. Many of the ideas were poached from the Europe-based fashion queens Vreeland knew. (The most famous of these axioms was “Why Don’t You rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?”) Vreeland became fashion editor in 1938, and soon showed several tendencies that few who met her would suspect. One is that she was a very hard worker. She was also, Stuart notes, “very good at working as part of a team. She was very good at picking people to work alongside her and help her. People who loved her found her very inspiring. She could be very, very hard on people who weren’t pulling their weight or were dull — very trying, as well as extremely inspiring.” One of her discoveries was the young model Lauren Bacall, whom she put on the cover of the magazine. Favorite looks included bare legs and capri sandals. While still at Bazaar, Vreeland began advising Jacqueline Kennedy about her fashion choices.
Vreeland’s sons, T. Reed Jr. and Frederick, known as Tim and Freck, were raised by nannies, which was typical for members of their class at the time, and she was, Stuart says, “a pretty distracted mother.” But the most difficult thing for her sons, both of whom Stuart interviewed, was to deal with having been raised in “a bubble of optimism,” so that, later on, “the world itself came as a horrible shock.”
In 1962, Vreeland became editor in chief of Vogue, replacing Jessica Daves. By then, she had long been known for her polished, stylized look and manner — black lacquered hair, scarlet lipstick, pale skin with bold slashes of rouge, a very slender body in streamlined clothes, the loping gait and those gnomic pronouncements — and had become almost a parody of herself. “She looked like she might be the most appalling sort of b--ch, but she was not a b--ch,” says Stuart. “She very rarely said unpleasant things about people behind their backs.”
Vreeland championed “clothes that reflected the new silhouette, the new line of the 20th century, whether they came from Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Claire McCardell, the Ballets Russes, the dance studio or the office messenger,” Stuart writes. Favorite inspirations from Vreeland’s past included George Sand, Isadora Duncan and Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in the 1931 film of the same name.
In the early Seventies, however, the revenues from Vogue began to fall off, and Vreeland was forced out of the magazine by the powerful art director Alexander Liberman, replaced by Grace Mirabella. “There was a power play,” Stuart says. “But there was no arguing with the sales figures. She got ahead of some readers and lost touch with others.”
It was Tom Hoving, the iconoclastic young director of the Metropolitan Museum, who decided to hire her to oversee the Costume Institute. Her shows, Stuart says, illustrated the point that “it was the woman who animated fashion, not the other way around. She used all her skills as a fashion editor and editor in chief to bring these extraordinary exhibitions to life, working in several dimensions, including sound and smell.” Her approach, the writer adds, came as such a surprise that if you saw one of her shows for the first time, “you’d think you hadn’t gone to a proper exhibition before.”