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Diana Vreeland's Rise To 'Empress Of Fashion'

Dec 31, 2012
Originally published on December 31, 2012 12:00 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is under the weather. Despite challenging economic times, many of us will dress up for New Year's Eve. Over the next few minutes, we'll focus on the unique history of American fashion. Coming up, a discussion about why fashion is so important for many African-American men.

But first, a look at a woman who helped shape American fashion, icon Diana Vreeland. She spent more than 20 years at Harper's Bazaar before taking the helm of American Vogue. Vreeland later launched groundbreaking costume exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and she accomplished all that after a childhood filled with pain, insecurity and a mother who called her ugly. Her story is captured in the new book, "Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland." Michel Martin recently sat down with the author, Amanda MacKenzie Stuart.


For our listeners who are not fashionistas, can you just give us - just briefly - an idea of Diana Vreeland's influence in fashion?

AMANDA MACKENZIE STUART: Her career in fashion spanned many decades. That was the first thing. She didn't actually get going until relatively late in life, in her mid-30s, when she joined Harper's Bazaar, which was an extraordinary magazine in 1936, and she stayed there right through till 1962, not as its editor, but as its fashion editor. Then she went to Vogue, where she became editor-in-chief. It was a top job, as you say, right through the turbulent '60s, a time of great change, great change in style, a great change in culture, which she tracked and reported and helped, really, to change in a very, very profound way.

And then she had an extraordinary third act at the Metropolitan Museum at the Costume Institute, launching a series of groundbreaking costume exhibitions, looking, again, at clothes in a completely different way.

So it was an astonishing career at the time when women from her background very rarely worked at all.

MARTIN: You write about, actually, a really heartbreaking story about her upbringing and how she was - she was treated in a way that I think a lot of people would, today, consider abusive. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?

STUART: Diana Vreeland was the plain child in a family of beauties. Her father was a very handsome man. Her mother was a very famous New York society beauty and her younger sister was a very, very beautiful and easy child. Diana was the difficult one and she always felt that her mother was somehow ashamed of her because of what she looked like and to make matters worse, her mother was somewhat flighty and often not there, certainly having very intense flirtations with people, if not outright affairs, and the person who held the household together was a nanny who just echoed her mother's antipathy towards her and it was always around this question of what Diana looked like and being a plain child.

MARTIN: How do you think that this prepared her - or do you think it, in a way, led her to fashion?

STUART: She did have a very miserable and difficult - really, a borderline abusive relationship with her mother, but instead exactly sort of developing a complex, what happened was that she developed a sort of parallel imaginative life into which she was able to escape, and we can see that happening in her diaries, even when she was 14. And she spent hours working out what she wanted this idealized version of herself to be.

And as she grew a little bit older and she moved into her late teens and she came out as a debutante in society, she actually sort of bridged the gap between this rather gawky teenager and the strikingly stylish young woman that she just sort of imagined herself into this position and it actually worked and she managed to find herself the most gorgeous, handsome husband as a result of it.

MARTIN: Speaking of kind of the idea of a fantasy is this wildly successful column that she wrote called Why Don't You. Can you even describe it? I mean, it was just filled with, like, crazy ideas. Can you describe it?

STUART: It was. Well, not long after she married Reed Vreeland, they went off to live in London and she just gave herself this great visual and cultural and social education by meeting all these people and watching how they did things and when she got back to New York, which was something she didn't really - she didn't want to leave London. She didn't want to leave Europe, but her husband's job took them back to New York. She was talent spotted by Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar. Carmel Snow persuaded her - I think is what happened - to start writing down ideas about the things she'd seen that had interested her in Europe, and this emerged as this Why Don't You column.

Why don't you give to the wife of your favorite bandleader an entire jazz band made of tiny bouquet diamonds and Cabershaw emeralds in the form of a bracelet from Marcus? Why don't you have your cigarettes stamped with a personal insignia as a well-known explorer did with this penguin?


MARTIN: OK. Now, you have to tell me. Was she joking? Was this a send-up?

STUART: No. It was just ideas and, in fact, in among these ideas - these crazy ideas - were really quite charming suggestions for doing things on - very cheaply.

MARTIN: This appeared in 1936 and 1937 when the column appeared most frequently, and you point out that the United States was still recovering from the Wall Street crash.


MARTIN: And was teetering on the brink of another sharp recession and yet the column was wildly popular.


MARTIN: Why is that?

STUART: I think people did like winkling out the cheap and cheerful suggestions that lurked in there. That was fun. I really think the main reason is it just made everybody laugh.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people have always thought about the fashion world - it's actually kind of tough and she was not easy.

STUART: As the decades wore on, she became more demanding, I think, and she was a very good team player. I mean, she worked alongside other people at Harper's Bazaar during the war, but she became very much harder on younger people and she was always a bit tougher, I think, on younger women than she was on younger men. But if she saw something in you that she liked or she saw a point of view that she thought was interesting, it all changed, as far as I can see, and people would find her utterly entrancing once you got past this wall. If you didn't, your life was very difficult if you were working for her.

MARTIN: She was very interested in the world and I want to play a - I just want to play a short clip from the trailer of the documentary, "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," and I'll just - you can also - you can hear her voice. Here it is.


DIANA VREELAND: The fashion world changes all the time. You can even see the approaching revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.

STUART: She understood very early on that clothes aren't just clothes. They always, always reflect what is going on around in society and whether one likes it or not, we are carrying out a kind of cultural act every time we get dressed.

MARTIN: Would Diana Vreeland have a place in the world of fashion today?

STUART: I think where she would possibly have a place now would be as a creative director, as an editor-at-large. I think she would. She had such an extraordinary sense of clothes and fashion, but really of style in the broadest possible sense. And with an imagination like that and the ability to inspire other highly creative people like that, I'm sure there would have been a place for her, but possibly not as editor-in-chief.

MARTIN: Amanda MacKenzie Stuart is author of the new biography, "Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland," and she was kind enough to join us from our offices at NPR in London.

Amanda MacKenzie Stuart, thank you so much for joining us. Happy holidays to you.

STUART: And to you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.