The Reading List: Diana Vreeland, Empress of Style


Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion is the first full-length biography of the legendary Vogue editor and self-mythologiser where words and facts take precedence over pictures and unverified if exciting anecdotes.  How did Diana Vreeland go from a well to-do housewife to one of the most powerful people in fashion?  And how did her remarkable mind and creative disregard for beauty over truth develop?  This book, by biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, attempts to answer those questions.

Vreeland, ‘the High Druidess of fashion, the Supreme Pontiff, Perpetual Curate and Archpresbyter of elegance, the Vicaress of style’ did not start out in life commanding the religious reverence that the previous quote implies, but instead had a difficult childhood, forever in the shadow of a beautiful younger sister and treated badly by a capricious, adventurous mother who (as these things often go no matter how much pink hair dye we put on) Diana resembled more in personality and outlook the older she became.

This book counters the obvious beautiful lies that Diana told as she invented herself.  Diana was born in Paris, but did not grow up there as she had claimed.  However, a more outlandish tale, that of Buffalo Bill teaching Diana and her sister to ride horses, may actually be true.  Mackenzie Stuart assesses Diana’s claims on its individual merits, not treating each one with scepticism but with a calm researcher’s eye.

This book is heavy on the fascinating details of Diana’s career, especially on how she came to win her jobs as editor of American Vogue and at the Costume Institute.  Grace Mirabella, Diana’s successor at Vogue, appears as a conflicted figure in the text but there is still a little meat missing from the controversial and quite sad story of how Diana came to fall from Grace at Vogue.

Diana’s personal life, especially that with her two sons, is not examined in great depth, though her relationship with husband Reed (who appears in the book as a bit of a well-dressed enigma) is given more space on paper.  The two sons do not appear as voices in the book – it’s a shame because, as the documentary The Eye Has to Travel shows, both have a great deal of interesting and often painful things to say about their mother.

The book is well-written, accessible, entertaining and nicely-paced.  With a life as unsure and clouded with half-truths as Diana Vreeland’s, the temptation to insert your own take on her life must be immense.  However, this biography does justice to the great lady’s legacy.

Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion is published by Thames and Hudson and is out in hardback now.

The Reading List: Grace, A Memoir

grace a memoir cover

So, here it is, ‘it’ being the long-awaited memoir of secretive and enigmatic American Vogue Creative Director, Grace Coddington. As the Gretchen Wiener of the fashion world (“That’s why her hair is so big – it’s full of SECRETS”), anything Coddington has to say was always going to be consumed eagerly by several generations of fashion lovers.  The release was timely – my Instagram feed has been flooded with snaps of the now universally recognisable orange cover, all Christmas presents, all displayed with the proud excitement usually reserved for a first bike or Barbie (or in my case, drum, which I broke not ten minutes later).

grace a memoir cafe

Grace, A Memoir is a reassuringly large, thick tome of a book.  However, flicking through to the first page, one realises that the type is quite big – two to three times as large as a standard paperback biography (yes, I measured) and very generously spaced.  If the book was in standard type, it would have been much smaller.  Yet, the type is presented in such a way that it’s the perfect size in relation to the rest of the book.  It’s a very fashion way of arranging things.  This may be because Grace, a Memoir isn’t really a very good autobiography.  It is however, a very enjoyable memoir of the fashion industry.

A memoir is a subsection of a traditional autobiography.  Instead of tracing a person’s life, the memoir traces the development of a person’s personality.  From ancient times up until the start of the twentieth century, a memoir traced a person’s career.  One would come away from a Victorian memoir knowing very little about what the author thought or felt, what motivated them or what their hopes and fears were.  In this respect, Grace is a very old-fashioned memoir.

Coddington refuses to talk in great detail about her personal life.  We know she had love affairs, marriages, divorces, heartbreak.  We get the bare bones and none of the meat, as such.  Few pages are devoted to the tragic death of her sister and Coddington’s subsequent adoption of her nephew, Tristan.  However, there is a whole chapter devoted to her cats.  Fun fact: Grace Coddington has a cat psychic.  This is a jarring and slightly out-of-place interlude in a book that is mostly about the stellar career of arguably the world best living fashion stylist.

grace coddington sketchCoddington freely admits that she does not read – and it shows even with the help of a co-writer.  The prose clips along at a fair pace, but traumatic events just pop out of nowhere, masked as anecdotes, and disappear again with a segue into the new floor plan of the British Vogue offices.

However, she knows the power of the image.  The book is liberally peppered with pen and ink drawings, all charming and gently humorous.  Even for the average creative memoir, there are a lot of photos to pore over and examine – and they are truly beautiful as well as beautifully presented.

grace a memoir spreads

One comes away from reading Grace knowing only a little more about the writer, but imbued with a better sense of the fashion industry as well as Grace Coddington’s love of it.  If you don’t expect scandal, personal epiphanies or sparkling prose, it makes a lovely (and essential) addition to any fashion bookshelf.  If you do expect such things, this is not be the book for you.

Grace, a Memoir is published by Chatto & Windus.  It is out now and available in all good bookstores.

Edith Wharton in Vogue

These pictures are a few months old (and therefore ancient in fashion/internet terms) but I still want to share this Annie Leibovitz spread for American Vogue.  Styled by Grace Coddington, Natalia Vodianova is novelist Edith Wharton on her Massachusetts estate, The Mount.  Flanking her is novelist Jeffrey Eugenides as Henry James, Boardwalk Empire actor Jack Huston as her mercurial lover William Morton Fullerton and an interesting cast of supporting characters including Elijah Wood as her chauffeur (!) and James Corden as Teddy Roosevelt (!?!).

The editorial is rather static and dreamy and Old World-ish, and there are cameos from American men of letters like Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz (no women, unfortunately).  It’s also accompanied by a rather lovely piece by Colm Toibin, which you can read here.  I suppose the only bone to pick is that Wharton was supposed to be about 45 at this time, while Vodianova is… not.  Kristen McMenamy might have made a better Wharton or, as one of the original commenters suggested, perhaps a female novelist would have been best.