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Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland Kindle Edition
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As the author of this book, Amanda McKenzie Stuart, wryly observes: "Capote, of course, parachuted out of an explanation by asserting that one had to be a genius to understand what he meant." Was Vreeland a creative genius? If yes, what was the nature of her genius? How did it manifest itself in her work? How has it impacted us, and what can we learn from her particular genius?
This riveting and brilliant biography explores those questions. "This book is for non-geniuses interested in the nature of Diana Vreeland's talent and achievements," writes Stuart.
It is fitting that Vreeland has a British biographer in Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Stuart understands if it weren't for Vreeland's time in England from 1929-1935, Vreeland never would have had an entree into the fashion-publishing world. Vreeland's exposure to Europe then, and earlier, distinguished her and enriched her perception. It was in London that she was mentored by Elsie De Wolfe (Lady Mendl), was drawn by Cecil Beaton, took tea with Conde Nast, met Wallace Simpson and the King and Queen of England, and flew to Paris to be fitted by Coco Chanel. When Vreeland returned to America, her insights into fashionable European society were in demand. These contacts she made in Europe would support everything she accomplished in the future.
Stuart skilfully interweaves the diverse strands of Vreeland's life for us to show how a combination of gifts, environment, the age, exposure, character, imagination and gumption intertwined to prosper Vreeland's individual genius. Stuart suggests Vreeland's rejecting and disapproving mother drove Vreeland to her imagination to inspire her to recreate herself as a vision of "the girl" she wanted to be. Vreeland's diary records her thoughts at 15, "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."
Yet, her fashionable mother also gave Vreeland an entree into style, the Astor 400 in New York City, and introduced her to dance, where Vreeland fell in love with line and movement. "When I discovered dancing, I learned to dream," said Vreeland. Research suggests the seeds of a person's future vocation can often be seen in their childhood. By age 14 Vreeland was creating tableaux in her mind and cutting out images from magazines and catalogs and arranging them. "I am making a divine collection of pictures from the penny picture catalogue....I spend hours a day but very interesting hours picking out and choosing and disciding (sic)."
This book shows Vreeland had a front row seat on one of the most revolutionary days in the history of women's fashion when corsets were unlaced, tresses were bobbed, cigarettes were smoked, and skirts were hiked. Vreeland became a jazz baby and flapper in her 20's in New York City. This early access to independence and the exotic infused her sense of possibility. "I realize now I saw the whole beginning of our century...everything was new," said Vreeland.
One of this author's talents is curating quotes by, and about, Vreeland and the fascinating people she met. On Vreeland's appearance and mien:
"Mrs. Vreeland's head sits independently on top of a narrow neck and smiles at you. Everything about her features is animated by amused interest." (Cecil Beaton) "She didn't merely enter a room, she exhilarated it. And all eyes immediately locked on her, hypnotised....Her actual presence was like a sock on the jaw. You knew you were seeing a supernova."(Nicky Haslam) "There's a word not much used nowadays, "limned', which is to illuminate, to edge in color. She was always limned, set in shock against her background." (Polly Devlin) "Some extraordinary parrot--a wild thing that's flung itself out into the jungle."( Truman Capote) Behind her appearance "lay a much-heralded mind not only of dazzling fantasies . . . but of originality of thought, and a carefully shrouded, or rather, disguised loving tenderness." (Nicky Haslam)
But no one is more quotable and revealing about Vreeland than Vreeland herself:
"There only one very good life and that's the life that you know you want and you make it yourself."
"Everyone thinks of suits when they think of Chanel. That came later. If you could have seen my clothes from Chanel in the thirties--the degage gypsy skirts, the divine brocades, the little boleros, the roses in the hair, the pailletted nose veils--day and evening!"
"You have to ignite women's appetites, titillate them so they want something. But the whole thing has to look spontaneous and you musn't have too many theories. If we have an intellectual working for VOGUE, he's running the elevator."
"I'm looking for the suggestion of something I've never seen."
"Give 'em what they never knew they wanted." (Albert Hadley used to say this a lot about interior design--suppose he heard it from Vreeland)
"VOGUE is the myth of the next reality."
"I'm an idearist. I have these spasm of ideas."
"I don't like to work. I only like to dream and achieve...quite a different matter."
"I call it a dream because so many things exist with it. Of course, it's both physical and mental...and spirituelle. I know of no other word for it...It brings out all the different sides that make up the whole."
"I think I've been a realist. I think fantasists are the only realists in the world. The world is a fantasy. Nothing's remarkably real." (sounds like a quantum physicist)
"There will...never be a human world without fantasy, which expresses the unconscious unfulfillable. All art draws on unconscious fantasy; the performance that is fashion is one road from the inner to the outer world."
The words of a genius? You will have to decide for yourself while reading this book. Einstein once said, "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." Vreeland would keep company with that concept: "The eye has to travel...." she said. We sense she is talking about the eye of the imagination as well. When fashion and publishing during the 1970's became too narrow and drab for Vreeland's capacious imagination, Vreeland moved on to a more suitable outlet: the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute where her imagination had unlimited scope. There Vreeland's theatrical exhibits attracted record-breaking crowds.
While this book chronicles Vreeland's achievements, the author's thesis is that Vreeland's genius was exhibited particularly in what she did for the individual woman. Her explanation of that phenomenon alone is worth the purchase of this book.
If you enjoy tales of fashion, design, creative people, strong women, the diverse and stylish ages from the 1900's through the 1980's, you really should read this insightful, inspiring biography on the Empress of the fantastical land of Vreelandia.
Diana Dalziel Vreeland was born of a British father and an American mother, in 1903 in Paris. Her family moved to New York right before WW1, but Diana, with her Parisian birth, remained a Franco-phile her entire life. Because she was not a beautiful woman - her mother and younger sister were the beauties in the Dalziel family - Diana had to use her brains and creativity to get ahead in the world. She married an extremely handsome man - Thomas "Reed" Vreeland - and raised two sons with him. Reed Vreeland was a banker but Diana made the coin in the Vreeland household.
Intensely creative and ambitious, Diana went to work at Harper's Bazaar for editor Carmel Snow as a sort of editor-at-large, giving seemingly gratuitous advise to Bazaar readers like, "Why don't you paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys' nursery so they won't grow up with a provincial point of view?" Other suggestions like washing your blonde daughter's hair in champagne to keep its color may have seemed a bit out of step with the times, but somehow Vreeland's audacious writing to her middle-class readers was considered charming. She championed both the producers of fashion (the great designers of her time) and those whose work showed off the designs (the photographers and models). She launched the careers of models Lauren Bacall, Verushka, Penelope Tree, and Jean Shrimpton, among many others. She was daring in her display work and photo shoots for Bazaar, and later, Vogue, were usually a bit over-the-top.
As her career bloomed, Diana Vreeland became a character of her own creation. Anyone who's seen a picture of Vreeland, tall, thin, dressed to the nines and sporting facial make-up primarily in the color red, will never forget the image. Her oversize personality, too, was both a help and a hindrance as she moved through both her work and her social life.
She was often difficult to work with - though she had many supporters - and after she was dismissed as editor of Vogue in 1971, she moved into her last career. She became the exhibition chief at the Costume Museum. Whether this job was offered to her by sympathetic friends, Vreeland spent her last years creating exhibitions of fashion and history that were absolutely dazzling. Maybe this last job was the culmination of her life; it was at the Institute that she was able to combine knowledge, taste, and a keen eye for the value of history to demonstrate the changing world of fashion.
Diana Vreeland is brought to life in Amanda Stuart's amazingly well-written, non-sensational biography. For anyone with an interest in fashion, the book is a gem.
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