This biography of Diana Vreeland has been out since 2012, and I’d been meaning to get it and read it, but it was not until I ran across a copy in a used bookstore that I was reminded to do so. So much has been written about Vreeland that I feel she needs little introduction. As far as fashion is concerned, she held three main positions: American fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar 1939 through 1962, associate editor then editor in chief at Vogue 1962 through 1971, and Special Consultant at the Costume Institute from 1972 until 1986.
What makes this biography so good is that Stuart somehow managed to cut through all the fantasy Vreeland had built around her life to give a true picture of what really transpired. Vreeland was never one to be bothered with factual truth; she was more interested in the essence of truth. To really understand this, I suggest reading Vreeland’s DV before reading Empress of Fashion.
As much as I love losing myself in vintage fashion magazines – the fruit of Vreeland’s labor from 1936 through 1971 – it is her time at the Costume Institute that I find to be the most interesting. After being fired by Vogue in 1971, Vreeland was at loose ends when the opportunity to organize exhibitions for the Met’s Costume Institute came her way. Her official title was that of Special Consultant, but she was actually acting as curator of exhibitions.
From the beginning, Vreeland’s approach to fashion exhibition was unorthodox. She was not interested in chronology, nor in the construction of garments. Her belief was that the important thing was the mood that clothing portrayed. She never let historical facts get in the way of how an exhibition should feel to the visitor to the museum. The curatorial staff at the Costume Institute often went behind Vreeland, correcting anachronisms and historical errors.
Despite her dismissal of a factual approach, Mrs. Vreeland did not believe that fashion was art. As she put it, “People say a little Schiaparelli design is an art form. Why can’t it just be a very good dress?” And that, to me is the essence of Mrs. Vreeland’s contribution to fashion display. Fashion should be seen as an important part of a culture, and whether or not it is art makes no difference.
Vreeland transformed the Costume Institute from an afterthought at the Met to a department that brought in the crowds. Many of her exhibitions broke attendance records, and brought needed attention to fashion studies and the display of dress. Still, many did not agree with her methods. The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London wrote in 1983, “… We are all totally opposed to Diana Vreeland’s degradation of fashion.”
But no matter, as Diana continued doing what she did best, creating exhibitions that inspired designers and delighted the public. And while I might prefer a more factual approach to fashion curation, I can certainly appreciate how much she did for the discipline.