Amanda MacKenzie Stuart
Empress of Fashion
Diana Vreeland, A Life
Thames & Hudson 2013
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in ArtNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in BiographyNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network June 26, 2013 Oline Eaton
The title says it all: Diana Vreeland was, in fact, that Empress of Fashion, reigning over Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute for half a century. As a result, her life story stretches the conventions of biography, which so often presents mid-century women’s lives merely as a series of relationships. Amanda MacKenzie Stuart‘s Empress of Fashion: Diana Vreeland, A Life (Thames & Hudson, 2013) provides a stunning alternative: the work narrative.
Vreeland’s is the story of an individual who, through sheer will, became the person she wanted to be. Today, we often read biography for inspiration and Vreeland herself searched for such in the lives she encountered and read, as Stuart writes: “At this point Diana wobbled back toward the idea of finding a great person on whom to model herself: ‘then by that I can become great.'” And yet she came up short, writing in her diary, “You know for years I am and always have been looking out for girls to idolize because they are things to look up to because they are perfect. Never have I discovered that girl or that woman. I shall be that girl.”
Stuart’s portrait of Vreeland revolves around this notion that she, a woman who was not considered conventionally attractive, excelled in the world of beauty by virtue of this vision- this driving idea of being The Girl and showing readers how they might be their own version of The Girl as well. The element that separates the notion of The Girl from fashion journalism today is that The Girl was- at least in the beginning- attainable, more an attitude supplemented by seasonal accessories and small touches than a look defined by brand names.
In the end, as Stuart mentions in our interview, Vreeland’s is a story of great hope: that one doesn’t have to a be a conventional beauty to be fashionable, one doesn’t have to be a man to produce exceptional work, one doesn’t have to conform to the lives and standards of others to be great. Simply by being herself, by being that girl she couldn’t find anywhere else, Vreeland became an icon. As a friend recalled: “She didn’t merely enter a room, she exhilarated it.”