BOOKS DECEMBER 3, 2012
Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland | by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Random House, 416 pp., $35 || Harper, 419 pp., $35
THE FASHION EDITOR doesn’t just influence what we wear, she also exerts a stranglehold on the serious, global business that is the commerce of clothing. It takes a person of considerable command to ascend to such a spot. And yet, perhaps because trendiness is necessarily a mode of capriciousness, fashion editors tend to be reduced to sleek, two-dimensional creatures in the popular imagination. But as with the garments in the glossies, there are a few who leap off the page. Two such personalities—Grace Coddington, the 71-year-old creative director of Vogue, and Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor in chief of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—have both recently received book length treatment. Ironically, it is the biography (the Vreeland book) rather than the memoir (the Coddington volume) that offers the most insight into the deep motivation behind the making of such a career and carefully examines the occasional ugliness of a lifetime committed to making things externally beautiful.
Coddington was the breakout star of R.J. Cutler’s 2009 documentary about the making of the annual Vogue tome, The September Issue. Padding around the office in shapeless black and muttering about artistic integrity, Coddington emerged as the romantic foil to the rigid Wintour. Her distinctively untamed red hair, straight out of a pre-Raphaelite canvas, seemed a perfect metaphor for her place in the fashion universe: unique, classic, and eccentric all at once. Coddington was a welcome voice for naturalism in the film, and so it’s a minor disappointment to learn, midway through the memoir, that the frizzy, unkempt hair is in fact a product of rigorous upkeep, dyed every two weeks and permed regularly for decades.
Coddington was a model before she was an editor, in the glamorous London and Paris of the 1960s, and so her life lends itself especially well to the Vogue-esse in which the memoir is written: a string of winking proper nouns with emotions kept elliptical. We learn that Coddington was in love with one paramour because she answered his phone call while mid-makeout with Mick Jagger—“just as it was about to get interesting,” she writes. Of the miscarriage of the only child she was able to conceive, she writes, “The incident was one of the most traumatic of my life,” then pivots directly to a new topic. “Although the late sixties were predominantly about Paris for me … ” It’s more fun to read than, say, the tedious political memoirs that also take the form of catalogs of places been and people met. But the frustration is similar: you’ve been all those places and met all those people and you have nothing interesting to say about it?
Feelings are allowed to bubble to the surface if contextualized with fashion or society: “I was to leave France considerably wiser about clothes, and not a little bitter about false relationships and infidelities,” she explains. “I soon learned that Albert, my handsome fiancé—the ring appropriately enough, was in the shape of a snake—had been conducting a lengthy affair directly under my nose with Catherine Deneuve’s sister.” Had the mistress been less well-connected, she may not have merited a mention. Of the end of Coddington’s marriage to Michael Chow, proprietor of the famous Mr Chow, this is as trenchant as it gets. “My hair had gone from chicly gamine to weirdly bushy. In retrospect, I think it must have been a silent cry for help.” She presents her sister’s death at a young age, evidently from causes related to drug addiction, in only slightly more weighty terms: “One thing I shall never forget was the incredible kindness of the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. He came to my flat when I returned home from my sister’s funeral, consoled me, and kept me company all night so that I wouldn’t be alone.”
The book’s slightness and emotional aversions are disappointing mostly because there are occasional glimpses of Coddington as a remarkable, forceful personality. Consider this wistful limning of her decision to move continents in middle age “It’s not so adventurous to make this kind of move when you’re young, but a bit more so when you’re forty-eight or forty-nine.” A whole short story could be induced from that sentence. Coddington is also sharply witty from time to time, and unafraid to go catty. This can be metaphorical (“with her big tits and incredibly thin ankles,” she writes of Tyra Banks, “she was never really cut out to be a high-fashion model”) or literal: “In New York, I’m cat central: Absolutely everyone calls me for advice. They call me if they need to find a vet or discuss their cat’s symptoms or get the telephone number of my cat psychic,” Coddington notes. “She’s brilliant, by the way. Her name is Christine Agro, and I was introduced to her by Bruce Weber.” As they say, it’s not what you know, but who you know.
In short, Coddington does not quite emerge from her memoir as the iconoclast she seemed in The September Issue. A reader looking for a more thoughtful examination of the fashion-editor archetype, and how it developed, would be better served by turning to Mackenzie Stuart’s thoughtful, thorough book. Vreeland was a true original—and one of the most broadly influential women of the twentieth century. As the ugly duckling child of a New York society woman, she learned early on that controlling her own image was the quickest way to getting what she wanted. “She’s the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it,” said Truman Capote of Vreeland. “Otherwise you just think she’s a rather foolish woman.”
“The Girl,” as Mackenzie Stuart terms the Vreeland vision of a woman, didn’t need to be naturally beautiful. Versatility was her secret; she could change from Dior’s shin-skimming skirts to Youthquake mini without any distress. This was Vreeland’s genius, easier to parse than Capote wanted to admit: she offered an enticing but fathomable roadmap to becoming a better, more up-to-date version of oneself. Yes, Vreeland dictated what was fashionable, as was her job. (She learned her lesson early on after she clashed with Harper’s Bazaar publishing brass over purses; she found them inelegant, they found them lucrative advertisers.) But she also encouraged idiosyncracy, in her choices of models and in her advice. An upright spine, both in bearing and outlook, was necessary. The model Veruschka once learned that she had been excluded from Vogue because she looked like “a victim instead of a heroine.” Vreeland wanted to create as many heroines as possible. Self-possession was the eventual consequence of the obsessive devotion to elegance.
Well, a few material objects helped, too: Vreeland’s signature column at Harper’s Bazaar during the 1930s was called “Why Don’t You” and drew heavily upon her experience abroad. “Why Don’t You bring back from Central Europe a huge white Baroque porcelain stove to stand in your front hall,” wondered one entry. “Why Don’t You rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?” Or this: “Why Don’t You wear bare knees and long white knitted socks as Unity Mitford does when she takes tea with Hitler at the Carlton in Munich.” Fashion mags could be tone-deaf to atrocity and tragedy before Anna Wintour took over Vogue. Upon being informed of JFK’s assassination, Vreeland reportedly moaned, “My god, Lady Bird in the White House! We can’t use her in the magazine.”
Führer-appropriate fashion aside, the column was a massive success, not because it launched crazes for porcelain stoves or champagne rinse, but because, in the midst of the depression, it offered American women something to laugh and wonder at—a role Vreeland instinctually understood. “Of course, the columns had a certain absurdity that tickled people—just to think that anyone would think of writing anything so absurd. But it wasn’t even writing,” she said. “To me, writing—Edith Wharton, Henry James … Proust, for God’s sake … is a thing of beauty and sustainment. ‘Why Don’t You?’ was a thing of fashion and fantasy, on the wing. … It wasn’t writing, it was just ideas. It was me, insisting on people using their imaginations.”
She had, in fact, a bit of a counterintuitive populist streak. Though Vreeland deeply loved European couture, she was intimately involved with the creation of American fashion and the development of Seventh Avenue; nothing pained her more than seeing the quality of affordable goods decline precipitously after World War II. “It is something I feel so keenly,” she wrote; “I think that the ‘masses’ are being given really such vulgar clothes because any copy of a great thing is bound to look second rate unless it is especially designed to be watered down.” One shudders to think what she would have made of Forever 21.
Of course, the unspoken theme in both of these books is money. As no shortage of people have pointed out, most people who work in magazines cannot afford most of the things they contain. Coddington describes herself as “an early example of ‘the trophy wife,’” and elsewhere observes that “Making money has never been a great concern of mine (I have never asked for a raise in my life).” Vreeland was perhaps more straightforward about the fictional fantasy that was her life’s work. “I always looked rich,” she once said. “That was something Reed [her husband] and I always had. … I’ve spent so much money in my life that it’s almost taken the place of the real thing.” There is something at once oddly comforting and deeply upsetting in knowing that the woman who helped dream up the blueprints for American elegance was herself overleveraged in pursuit of it. Vogue was “the myth of the next reality,” she once told an associate editor, vaguely and yet acutely. The trick, of course, key to her commercial success, is that the next reality is never quite upon us. As Vreeland explained, “What sells is hope.”
Noreen Malone is a Staff Writer at The New Republic. Follow: @NoreenMalone