Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion

Diana Vreeland in the Words of her Biographer

By Finola Austin

She was the woman who deemed the American Civil War unimportant compared to the smell of a Santiago orange and advised parents to rinse their blonde children’s hair in dead champagne, but in her talk on Diana Vreeland at the Sunday Times’ Oxford Literary Festival, biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart painted the picture of an insecure ‘ugly duckling’ child as the vital component behind the 20th century’s ‘Empress of Fashion’. 

Years of dissatisfaction with her appearance, prompted by her society beauty mother’s obvious embarrassment , were the driving force behind Vreeland, whom, Stuart claims, should not be pathologised, but rather celebrated as an example of the power of the imagination to cocoon us from damaging experiences and unleash productive creativity, in ourselves and others.

Diana, Stuart notes with a laugh, would probably never be given Anna Wintour’s job now – she would be some sort of Creative Director – but in some ways she was the ultimate ‘editor’, not only in her posts at Harper’s Bazaar (1936-62) and Vogue (1963-71), but of her own life. Her teenage diaries chart her mission to discover a female figure to idolise. Finding none who lived up to her aesthetic ideas she decided to fashion herself – ‘The Girl’, youthful, dreamy, perhaps with the odd irregular feature, was at the centre of Vreeland’s conceptions of beauty long before the 60s spent at Vogue, helping launch models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton over the pond, and daring female consumers to push fashion boundaries, become their own ‘editors’ in an age of pan-global eclecticism. 

Stuart’s talk also touched on Vreeland’s time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at how her work on at least twelve exhibitions, although controversial, established the cultural importance of costume in the art world. The freedom of working in 3D, rather than for the pages of a magazine, seems to have unleashed a new creative energy in Vreeland’s later years. Lighting, foreground, background, perfume – all contributed to the viewing experiences she sought to create - and ambience and feeling were clearly of much greater importance to Vreeland than historical accuracy or chronology. 

Given this, I can’t help wondering what Vreeland would have thought of this new biography, and the biographer who labels ‘chronology’ as the key to understanding her. But, as the audience laughs at her various witticisms and aphorisms, admires iconic images from the fashion shoots she helped create and revels in the anecdotes others have told of her, I come to the conclusion she would probably have delighted in this latest addition to the Diana Vreeland myth.

By Finola Austin (Follow me @alonif01).

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