Diana Vreeland launched herself at Harper’s Bazaar with the column “Why Don’t You?”: “Why don’t you rinse your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?” Such love for the superficial and luxurious may have been out of step with the austerity of the 1930s, but it foretold the direction of much of 20th-century American fashion. As fashion editor at both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue—where she was an early promoter of “youthquake” trends in the 1960s—and later as curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, Vreeland’s professional influence was as eccentric as her personal style.
Rail-thin with severe black hair and a distinctive, crane-like profile, Vreeland’s style developed as compensation for her perception that she was unattractive. In the insightful new biography Empress of Fashion, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart shows how Diana’s debutante mother rejected her “ugly” daughter in favor of her more conventionally pretty sister. This hurt Diana, but she did not allow it to shape her life. Reinventing herself as “The Girl”—immaculate, stylish and positive—led to five decades of fashion-forward professional success.
Stuart uses Vreeland’s vulnerable roots to create a sympathetic portrait of Diana, and also to explain her notorious lies about her background, such as her stories about growing up in Belle Époque Paris instead of New York City. She believed in telling the best story possible; if that meant gliding over the hurt of being an unloved daughter, so be it.
Diana Vreeland’s life story is oddly inspiring. Why don’t you give a copy of Empress of Fashion to your favorite fashionista this holiday season?