Reviewed: Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

Strike a pose.

Diana Vreeland: the first lady of fashion. Photograph: Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos (Main)

Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Thames & Hudson, 448pp, £19.95

A life that burns short and bright is one thing but in the case of Diana Vreeland, who was fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and editor in- chief of American Vogue, life was not only bright but long. Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s well-paced biography is an account of impressive self-invention by a woman from whom gravelly aperçus coiled like the endless smoke from her cigarette holder (she died from emphysema in 1989).

Through the pages of Vogue, Vreeland introduced America to Lauren Bacall, celebrated the Beatles, championed modernity and started or boosted many careers. She didn’t need to work and always gave the (false) impression that she fell into Bazaar in 1936 by accident after meeting the then editor, Carmel Snow, at a party. In reality, Snow had written about her in the society pages a decade earlier. Despite Vreeland’s stance of inadvertent amateurism, Richard Avedon called her the “most hard-working person he had ever known”.

Diana Dalziel was born rich in 1903 in Paris. The money came from her mother, Emily Hoffman, a Wharton-esque American heiress, who went to Paris at 25. Stuart shows how the young Diana’s Parisian origins permeated the rest of her life, both in a keen appreciation of European glamour and in her habit of making up whatever suited her story. She maintained that she had come to America at the age of 11, speaking only French; the truth is that she arrived in New York as a one-year-old baby.

At school, Diana was bright, imaginative and cut counter to convention: tall, skinny, beaky and squinty. Thought ugly by some, she retired to her adolescent diary to create the perfect “girl”, excitingly dressed and fascinating, who enslaves all around her. At 20, she married the handsome Reed Vreeland and they set off to Paris, then London.

When Vreeland was asked to work at Harper’s Bazaar, she leapt. She began a series of columns called “Why Don’t You?” that encouraged readers to enter a fantastic, upper-crust world: “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s head in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?” She also cultivated the appearance that would last a lifetime: thinness, black hair, red lips and often black clothes, plus a “loping camel’s gait, with her long neck thrust forwards like an inquisitive tortoise”.

Promoted to American-fashion editor, Vreeland set about coercing Seventh Avenue manufacturers to compete with Paris and promoted American clothes alongside the reigning Parisian ones. War, which blockaded French imports, helped this.

As years passed and Vreeland became a powerful grande dame, her imperial foibles, satirised in films such as Funny Face (1957) and, much later, Factory Girl (2006), developed. She called all her assistants “Girl” and threw her coat at one of them. Yet, in 1957, when Carmel Snow was fired, the obvious successor was passed over. Later approached by Vogue, Vreeland quit Bazaar to start the most influential period of her life.

Vogue was caught in a 1950s girls-andpearls time warp whose clasp Vreeland violently snapped. Fit and slim herself, she promoted lithe bodies, bare skin, miniskirts, personal verve and sexuality. David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton, Nicholas Haslam, Andy Warhol and Mary Quant were all brought in to play. There were photo shoots of models perched on top of mountains, horses caparisoned in tinsel, the first black supermodel and Nijinsky dancing naked: heady stuff and part of the “youthquake” phenomenon that she named, applauded, packaged and sold.

Yet, Stuart notes, by 1970, the 67-year-old Vreeland missed how young women wanted to work and in easier clothes. With her vision of luxurious unreality, Vreeland, who felt that the Pill had given women all the freedom they needed, fell out of step. Accusing her of having too much power and her work of being “too daring for its time”, the Condé Nast supremo Alexander Liberman (who had brought her in) pushed her upstairs. At this point, most people would take to slippers and a pipe. Instead, Vreeland entered the third phase of her career, organising 12 blockbuster costume exhibitions at the Met in New York. Though they were unorthodox, often unhistorical and eventually lambasted, her shows were hits: her 1976 exhibition “The Glory of Russian Costume” broke box-office records.

Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs. The fashion designer Bill Blass said that she combined “Twain’s reverence for the reinvented self with Barnum’s love of showmanship”. This vigorous biography offers a near-perfect example of the American dream.

Philippa Stockley is a writer and critic. Her most recent novel is “A Factory of Cunning” (Little, Brown, £19.95)