Cecil Beaton described her as “an authoritative crane” or “some extraordinary parrot,” while Nicky Haslam likened her presence to “a sock in the jaw.” Both were referring to the fashionable force of nature that was Diana Vreeland (1903-89), the subject of Amanda Mackenzie Stuart‘s Empress of Fashion, out Tuesday in paperback from Harper Perennial. The dazzling biography delves into the origins of Vreeland’s genius as it follows her from an ugly duckling childhood in Paris and a self-imposed extreme makeover at the age of 14, through her tenure at Harper’s Bazaar, at Vogue, and at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“There were imagination and fantasy in fashion before Diana,” says Stuart (pictured below). “What she did, indefatigably, and from a position of great influence at Vogue, was to assert the authority of the imagination—and the idea of possibility that galloped along beside it.” We threw on our most exotic caftan, streaked on the rouge, and managed to narrow our questions for Vreeland’s Oxford, England-based biographer down to an elegant seven.
When/how did you first encounter Diana Vreeland?
I’m British and live in the UK so I was only vaguely aware of Diana Vreeland before I started writing a different book, about Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother Alva (Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and a Daughter in the Gilded Age, HarperCollins, 2005). Before my research for that book, and like a number of people now I think, I knew something about DV without being quite sure why. I wasn’t quite sure what she did, but I did have a blurry image of a snood, a dash of brilliant red lipstick, and an achingly hip granny who ran ’round town with Andy Warhol. Quite terrifying, in other words.
At the very end of my research for the book about Consuelo, I discovered that Diana Vreeland had long been fascinated by her story and her style and had included her in the Costume Institute exhibition in 1976 called “American Women of Style.” So that was the point at which I first properly encountered DV.
Was there a particular aspect of her background or a finding in your initial research that convinced you to proceed with a biography?
Well, when I was writing the Consuelo book I should have been a very self-disciplined biographer and stopped myself from going off-piste for days on end. I should have allocated no more than half a day’s research, or maybe one day maximum, to the curator of an exhibition in which Consuelo appeared twelve years after her death. But it didn’t work out like that. I became completely distracted by DV, who was very funny, and, at first glance, not unlike Consuelo’s mother. (On second glance she wasn’t like her at all, but that’s another story.)
Was it difficult to write a biography of someone who made an art of stretching the truth?
No, it was fascinating. But I didn’t really want to write a biography of her that constantly went “Ha! She said this, but it was actually like that…” I was more interested in why she said what she did about her youth. She dealt in poetic rather than literal truth. I also came to see that she didn’t like an anecdote to fall flat, so to spare it any embarrassment she would ramp up the ending. But you could say that’s a generous social instinct.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Vreeland?
That she constantly reinvented herself. She didn’t. That’s not to say she didn’t make things up or came to believe that what she imagined was the truth, but insofar as she invented a past for herself she was very consistent about it.
Do you have a favorite Vreelandism or “Why Don’t You” idea?
I particularly like “Why Don’t You have your cigarettes stamped with a personal insignia, as a well-known explorer did with this penguin,” though to do it justice I’d have to show you the drawing that appeared beside it of the cigarette and the penguin.
Did you receive from readers any notable responses, new insights into Vreeland, or stories about her following your book’s publication?
Nothing that changed my view of her. People were amazingly helpful while I was writing the book, on the whole because they were very fond of her. People who felt more negative about her haven’t been in touch, though I’d be very interested to hear from them.
Have you set your sights on another biographical subject?
Not yet. Still recovering from this one.