I must confess, I was more familiar with Diana Vreeland’s name and her association with Vogue than anything more substantial about her. Nevertheless, her memoir DV sounded right up my alley.
Unfortunately, I was not. First of all, it’s more anecdotes and free-flowing thoughts as narrated to an interlocutor than an organised reflection. And then some of the thoughts were too bratty and posh for even my high tolerance level for that sort of thing. By the end of it though, I warmed to her style (while setting aside my misgivings over the politics, such as her assertion on the place of women etc) but still felt I had not really got a complete picture of her life or contribution to fashion.
Diana Vreeland – Empress of Fashion cured all that. It is a fabulous book, not just painting the portrait of an extraordinary person whose genius is evident only in a fragmented way in DV. Amanda Mackenzie Stuart puts Diana into the context of her time, a time when some women were highly educated but most were essentially powerless and when fashion offered and still offers a real-world domain in which women can wield power. For Vreeland, it was more about creativity than power. Her social connections got her a job, and thereafter she ran with it and became an influencer.
Throughout the biography, this strain of self-creation runs through. Vreeland invented herself from material that she had been told since childhood was substandard. Her mother flat out considered her the unworthy ugly child, and she coped by deciding that she’d fulfil her own fantasy of swanhood. And she did, partly by extending that fantasy outward to the whole world. She remained a relevant force in the fashion world well into latter years too. Sacked from Vogue, she was granted a position at the Costume Institute of the Met and she ran with that and reinvented it too.
While reading the book, I realised I was not really familiar with American fashion of the 30s-late 50s period, and I started Googling the names mentioned in the book and the images are so inspiring.
Dress by designer Claire McCardell
Dress by Mainbocher
Photo by Richard Avedon
Photos by Louise Dahl-Wolfe