Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

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New York Fashion Week wrapped up yesterday and this year’s iteration provided a heady brew of glamour, ego, money, and fame, as always. Critics outside of the fashion industry can be harsh on the eccentricity and impracticality of the event, but true fashion insiders know that the industry requires both the ridiculous and the sublime to truly thrive.

 

Perhaps no one personifies the complexities of modern fashion more than Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue magazine. Though she died in 1989, Vreeland remains an icon and continued subject of magazine profiles as well as a recent documentary film, and a new biography. In the biography, “Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland”, author Amanda Mackenzie Stuart attempts to explain how a homely girl often wounded by her socialite mother’s low opinion of her looks became one the 20th century’s high priestesses of style.

 

Of course, Vreeland’s complicated relationship with beauty is far from the only contradiction explored by Stuart. Vreeland, who grew up in relative luxury, began working as a columnist at Harper’s Bazaar largely because her husband couldn’t support their lifestyle. For much of her career, she functioned as breadwinner and effective head of household.  Yet, when feminism arose as a social movement, she took an immediate dislike to it (her apologists now claim she was a feminist “without realizing it”). She also had distaste for the social mores of hippies, but fully embraced their sense of style.

 

During the first two decades of her career, she managed to become highly influential in the fashion world without enjoying much of the wealth that is supposed to accompany such an esteemed position. Disputes over her salary eventually led her to leave the Hearst Corporation’s Harper’s Bazaar for Vogue. “I was the most economical thing that ever happened to the Hearst Corporation,” she later said. “Perhaps they loved me because I never knew how to get any money out of them.” Yet, she had an almost unworldly ability to get money out of Vogue; when she was fired in 1971, she left the magazine with a reportedly seven-figure bill for a single photo shoot.

 

Stuart has the advantage of working with a fascinatingly complex subject, so it is not surprising that she’s produced an entertaining biography. However, the author should be commended for not simply regurgitating the many excellent (and often repeated) anecdotes about Vreeland’s life. Instead, “Empress of Fashion” makes an honest attempt at understanding the inner passions that drove Vreeland – no small feat considering she once famously declared, “I adore artifice, I always have.” Stuart successfully delves behind the artifice, something notoriously difficult in the fashion world. In short, she takes a magnifying glass to Vreeland’s life and manages to capture both the ridiculous and the sublime.

 

Photo courtesy of Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel