fashion book review

D.V. By Diana Vreeland, edited by George Plimpton; De Capo Press, 212 pages.

Reviewed by Damion Matthews

Since her death on August 22, 1989, Diana Vreeland's fame has grown tremendously. She's been featured in dozens of magazines, she's been the subject of a costume exhibit, inspired a character in a Robert Altman film, someone's writing her biography, and her life has been the focus of two theater productions, first in the little-known show "An Homage to the Empress V.," and most recently in the very popular off-Broadway show "Full Gallop," which toured the United States to rave reviews.

Mary Louise Wilson, the star and co-author of "Full Gallop," wrote the foreword to the new paperback edition of D.V., Vreeland's 1984 autobiography and the basis for Wilson's play. She recalls: "Someone once directly challenged her: 'Now, Diana, is this fact? Or fiction?' A tiny pause, and the reply came: 'Faction.' Realities were simply not as important to Mrs. V. as the imaginative life."

Indeed, Vreeland once declared: "Exaggeration is the only reality." She was a woman made of metaphor and mystery. She had a surreal visionary sense, a strange way of looking at things. The designer Bill Blass once commented that "Diana saw life in a way that nobody else ever has."

Recently another visionary, Andy Warhol, was featured on A&E's "Biography" as part of that series' "Troubled Geniuses" week. Towards the end of the program Vreeland appeared in a filmed visit to the artist's studio in the '70s. She could be heard exclaiming to Warhol, "That is so luxurious", with her legendary enthusiasm. The quality of the footage was poor and Vreeland, in shadow, could barely be seen, but the strength of her personality could not be missed.

I have expressed to people my bemusement that no woman was featured as a "troubled genius" on A&E. I have also wondered what it is that makes one a "troubled" genius rather than just an ordinary one and wonder in which category Vreeland fits. Truman Capote, who said that along with Emily Dickinson, Vreeland was one of the "very few great original women" of America, commented in 1977 that "She's a genius but she's the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it. Otherwise you just think she's a rather foolish woman...."

Perhaps she'll be featured during A&E's "Foolish Geniuses" week.Unfortunately, any documentary about her is going to have to rely on scattered snippets of footage similar to that as seen in the Warhol program. There just aren't as many appearances on television and video as one would like. Nevertheless, Vreeland has left a very strong impact on the cultural world through print. D.V. by Diana Vreeland (which has been in paperback once before, following its release in hardback) is not the best evidence of Vreeland's keen aesthetic ability -- for that I recommend her earlier book Allure (it costs well over $200.00 if you can locate it through a used book seller) or "Vogue" (USA), when she was that magazine's editor -- but it is a fascinating record of her Mame-like personality.

The novelist Bruce Benderson once remarked to me that every word of this book is "a name-dropping lie." On some level I understood he was right, but there was something in his criticism which infuriated me because I felt it missed the point of her art. It has occurred to me that the names of important people carry with them remnants of the power of the people they refer to. They're like religious relics, symbolic of a greater being. Name-dropping is secular prayer. All designer label junkies know this to be true. Halston. Prada. Gucci. These names, to the followers of fashion, are as symbolically important as the Eucharistic wafer is to the Catholic. Just ask Patsy and Edina of "Absolutely Fabulous", with their religious adoration of Lacroix, Ungaro and Armani ("Names! Names! Names darling!") Diana Vreeland, writing about Josephine Baker, Chanel and Clark Gable (among others) is, in a sense, a poet of the kind only the 20th century could understand.

But now, De Capo Press's publication of D.V. will introduce her to a whole new audience, and because of this Vreeland, whom the critic Camille Paglia calls "one of the great, stentorian dragon ladies of the century," will cast her spell on the next as well. There's a lesson to be learned from this book for the other ladies of fashion journalism, but unfortunately, they haven't gotten it.

Who in 10 years, let alone 10 minutes, is going to remember Elizabeth Tilberis's new autobiography? Did anyone read Grace Mirabella's book when it came out a few years ago? Vreeland's book has a lasting appeal, theirs does not. Mirabella, of course, replaced Vreeland when she was fired from "Vogue" in the early '70s. She was credited for making the magazine more "accessible" to the reader. She showed the women of the '70s and '80s how to dress for work whereas Vreeland might have shown them how to dress for an orgy in Mongolia. But was Mirabella's pragmatic approach simply a necessary response to the times, to no-frills feminism in the sportswear age of Karan and Klein or did Mirabella, as editor of the most popular and powerful fashion publication in the world, create that style of dressing?

Reading the unimaginative books of both Tilberis and Mirabella I suspect that the reason fashion has gotten so increasingly dull over the last 25 years is because the fashion editors themselves have gotten increasingly dull. I know of little that can be done to correct this than for new editors with new ideas and new personalities to take over.

Well, my goodness, isn't that what Isabella Blow has been counting on? Blow, the eccentric British aesthete inspired by Vreeland, has been responsible for introducing several new English designers to the fashion world, most notably, Alexander McQueen. But what new designers have our American editors given us? Year after year, issue after issue, the same New York designers are represented. Even established, well-respected designers, like Geoffrey Beene and Isabel Toledo, are ignored in "Vogue" and "Harper's Bazaar" in favor of the giants of American design (and that schmoozer, Marc Jacobs.)

Diana Vreeland was not known for supporting American designers, but there were a few Americans she did feature in her magazine, and lavishly. Because she believed in them. Because they were great. She had the ability to see greatness and the desire to show it to others. More than anything that's what one comes away with after reading D.V.. It's sadly missing in the ad-mad leadership of fashion magazines today.

Essays by Diana Vreeland available online:

Why Don't You.
Costumes of the Ch'ing Dynasty
Irene Castle (1893-1969)
Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Rita de Acosta Lydig (1880-1929)
Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1877-1942)
Mrs. John W. Garrett (1877-1952)
Millicent Rogers (1900-1953)
Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson (1873-1956)
Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough (1876-1964)