Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (Harper, $35.00, 419 pages)
What interested Diana most, once again, was the philosophy detectable throughout her life: her faith in the divine spark, the complete worlds of imaginative people whose distinctive tastes and determination turned fantasy into reality.
A bigger than life person often sparks the interest of the general public. A biography can be engaging and illuminating, as was the story of the 20th Century designer Coco Chanel, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel by Karen Karbo. However, let’s be realistic, the general public isn’t fascinated by the women’s fashion queen and king-makers, the wizards behind the screens. It’s pretty much a niche market for biographers. In this book, the wizard behind the glossy pages of Harper’s Bazaar and American Vogue magazines, Diana Dalziel Vreeland is the subject of this, the second biographical work by British writer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.
As with most biographies, Empress of Fashion tracks Mrs. Vreeland’s life in chronological order, from her birth in Paris, France on July 29, 1903, to her death in New York City on August 22, 1989. Given the vast number of cigarettes she inhaled during her lifetime – most photographs show her smoking, it’s amazing that she lived to the age of 85. The early chapters are filled with references to many of Mrs. Vreeland’s well-known relatives, both living and deceased. Author Stuart might have enhanced the reader’s experience by including a family tree illustration. A perfect example can be found in the sumptuous biography, Sister: The Life of Legendary American Interior Decorator Mrs. Henry Parish II by Apple Parish Bartlett and Susan Bartlett Crater.
Mistakes that might previously have seemed nugatory now loomed larger.
The language used throughout the book is quite specific and not necessarily in common use. Ms. Stuart describes the upper crust of society as “gratin.” Yes, the meaning can be determined by its use in the sentence; however, “infra dig,” “nugatory” and “fete champetre” required a quick look-up. If her reference to an outdoor party had been in Italian, as in una festa all’aperto, this reviewer would have understood. Sadly, my eighth grade conversational French is lamentably rusty.
Happily, there are photographs to inform the reader just how beautiful Mrs. Vreeland’s younger sister Alexandra, her husband Reed and her two sons were in contrast to her own angular and hawkish face. The point in made throughout the book with regard to Alexandra and Reed. Perhaps the beauty she placed on the pages of the fashion magazines and the wonderful clothing lines she encouraged (Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta) did compensate for her features. It seems to have been a driving force that propelled her to fame and notoriety.
There was a noticeable shift in voice and cadence of the book as the telling of Mrs. Vreeland’s life drew to its conclusion. It began in an almost prissy and pompous way but eased back and took on an infatuated, emotional and nearly-poetic tone at the end.
Recommended to the fashionista over forty.
Note: During the height of her fashion magazine career in the early 1970s, Mrs. Vreeland challenged her long-standing notion of presenting clothes and accessories as desirable purchases for ladies. Her editorial features in Vogue were confrontational and highly suggestive of sexuality and aggressiveness. This reviewer was newly-married and employed in San Francisco at the world headquarters of the Bank of America. Vogue offered little or no help with suggestions for looking well-dressed and appropriate to my work environment. At the time I was confused about why Vogue had ceased to provide helpful fashion guidance. Ms. Stuart’s book has cleared up the mystery. RA
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Empress of Fashion is also available as either a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book.