Review Essay

empress-of-fashion-diana-vreelandBiographile,Dec 31 2012


By Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Harper. 432 pp. $35

Dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Gloss, 86min.

As Diana Vreeland herself might have said, in her swooping, scratchy baritone, Diana Vreeland is having a moment. Celebrated with a lively documentary and illustrated book, “The Eye Has to Travel,” as well as a new biography (“Empress of Fashion” by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart), the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue expanded the definition of “fashion” and pushed it to the center of culture. Born Diana Dalziel, into a high-society Anglo-American family, she took the family motto, “I Dare,” to its limits, rejecting the expected idleness of women in her class, and enjoying a storied career from magazines to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The documentary, directed by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, is based on Vreeland’s 1984 memoir “D. V.,” which she wrote with the help of George Plimpton, and much of the footage comes from interviews conducted in her shocking red floral living room (“I wanted it to look like a garden. But it had to be a garden in hell.”) Plimpton quizzes her extensively about her family and her career, eliciting blunt, funny, and often outrageous responses from the doyenne on her daybed, in her emphatic voice with its elongated vowels and wandering accent. There’s no better way to grasp this than to hear it; Mackenzie Stuart describes it, but it is best coming from the brightly painted figure herself.

Mackenzie Stuart’s book, however, is able to dig deeper into Vreeland’s past, especially her unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with her mother, of whom she said, “I was always her ugly little monster.” A practiced editor and embellisher of her own life, Vreeland spoke only fleetingly of this period, although by delving into Diana’s diaries, her biographer makes the case that the groundwork for her creative future was laid early. However, she cautions against a reading of Vreeland’s life that overemphasizes her mother’s cruelties and “unfairly pathologizes her”; instead, Mackenzie Stuart focuses on Vreeland’s inventiveness, and her extraordinary, restless “eye” — “An alternative answer is that Diana was a vulnerable child who was saved by the power of her imagination.”

After her coming-out ball at the Ritz-Carlton in 1921, Diana was launched into a rapidly changing, economically and culturally vibrant New York. Young women were shocking their elders by moving unescorted around the city and dancing until dawn in underground speakeasies. Diana loved it all, and quickly made a splash. In 1924 she married Thomas Reed Vreeland, a banker with film-star looks, who would remain a loyal constant in her life, as she spun an ever more elaborate social and fashionable web around herself. They had two sons, who appear in the documentary, but whose feelings about their extraordinary mother are expressed in fairly muted, respectful terms. Perhaps because we’re so used to hearing powerful women proclaim that family comes first, it’s a bracing realization that for Vreeland, that clearly wasn’t the case.

The Vreelands moved to London in 1929, where Diana met luminaries such as Cecil Beaton, and was reported by The New York American to have “made an enviable niche for herself in top-lofty social, artistic and musical circles.” On their return to New York in 1935, Vreeland’s career took flight — in part, because she realized that her inheritance would no longer support the luxurious lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. Hired by Carmel Snow, the farsighted and energetic new editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Vreeland made her name with her “Why Don’t You?” column, an eclectic list of semi-serious suggestions for making oneself and one’s life as chic as Diana’s. Why don’t you, for instance: “Paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys’ nursery so they won’t grow up with a provincial point of view? Bring back from Central Europe a huge white baroque porcelain stove to stand in your front hall? Wear violet velvet mittens with everything? Have an elk-hide trunk for the back of your car?” In the documentary, these pages flit across the screen, images and text combining to make even the most outlandish suggestions seem inviting, inspirational, and entertaining. At one point, the director’s young daughter reads some of these aloud, sounding alarmed by the edict to “wash your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne.”

As Diana’s star rose at Harper’s, she became ever more daring, dramatic, and didactic, teaching her readers to cherish luxury and style over all. She knew the power of clothes: In 1960, she began to advise Jackie Kennedy on her wardrobe, developing her signature look while making a point of showcasing American designers. After Carmel Snow retired, Diana was passed over as editor, and, unthinkably, ditched Harper’s for arch-rival Vogue, where she remained at the helm throughout the ’60s, bringing iconic new “youthquake” stars like Mick Jagger and The Beatles into the realm of fashion, and printing lavish spreads from the exotic new worlds that jet travel was opening up.

It couldn’t last. Diana’s vision was never one that could be brought in on a lower budget, and she was eventually fired from the magazine in 1971. But she was not one to retire: Her last act was equally revolutionary, as she was brought in to shake up the Metropolitan Museum’s stuffy Costume Institute, and turned it into the site of blockbuster exhibitions that for the first time displayed the works of clothing designers as works of art. Critics protested, but the public loved it, and her exhibitions in the 1970s and ’80s were huge hits. Vreeland’s brilliance was in her understanding that fashion needed fantasy and wit as much as practicality, and that style was about far more than clothes. The biography is an intelligent examination of how Vreeland became Vreeland; the documentary, on the other hand, is a riotous celebration of what she was.

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