Magazine article The Spectator

An Extraordinary Creature

Magazine article The Spectator

An Extraordinary Creature

Article excerpt

Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart Thames & Hudson, £19.95, pp. 329, ISBN9780500516812 Over 80 and almost blind, Diana Vreeland was wheeled around a forthcoming costume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, issuing instructions all along the way about hats, shoes, lights and mannequins.

She seemed, recalled the writer Andrew Solomon, an impossible old lady who couldn't let go of her control and who was making everyone's lives miserable for no good reason. And they did everything she'd said, and it was transformed. Her nearly sightless eyes could pick out things my youthful vision could not;

enfeebled, she was still supreme at the discipline of chic.

From childhood, Diana Vreeland had operated with deep faith in the power of self-presentation. She transformed herself from an ugly, unpopular child into the 'Empress of Fashion', who had the soles of her shoes polished and who spoke in her own, heavily stressed, poetic idiom. She was an extraordinary creature with prodding red talons, black hair so shiny it was said to have clinked in contact with metal, Vaselined eyelids and the gait of a dromedary, upper body sloping backwards, pelvis thrust forward.

Vreeland had thought she would simply live a stylish life, rather than a professional one, but when she was in her thirties she was recruited by Carmel Snow at Harper's Bazaar and she happily took to putting her stamp on her readers' wardrobes, houses, children, pets.

Her first column 'Why Don't You?' was a fantastical compendium of styling ideas.

Why Don't You: rinse your blond child's hair in dead champagne to keep its gold?

Put earrings on your furniture? Install a private staircase from your bedroom to the library with a needlework carpet with notes of music worked on each step - the whole spelling out your favourite tune?

The spirit of 'Why Don't You?' informed Vreeland's career, as she moved to fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, to editor of Vogue, to costume curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An endless stream of memos issued from within the scarlet lacquered walls of her office at Vogue: the serpent should be on every finger and all wrists; let's promote grey; I am extremely disappointed that no one has taken the slightest interest in freckles. …

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