Books · Fashion & Beauty

Book Review: “Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman”

DianaVreelandModernWoman_cover*Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman, Rizzoli, $60. Click here to purchase on Proceeds from your purchase help fund Women’s Voices’ nonprofit mission.

Diana Vreeland has always seemed very, very French to me.

She was born in Paris, of course, and much has been written about her exceedingly distingué family, but that’s not the point really.

Her heritage was Anglo-American, but it was her philosophy of life — getting on with it, getting up and getting out there (dressed to make it worth the effort), inventing her destiny, being an original, knowing when to say “non” or “oui, oui, oui!” — that made her seem so quintessentially French.

“You gotta have style to get up in the morning,” she famously said. More proof: “You don’t have to be beautiful to be wildly attractive.”

She is a “never before” and a “never since.” Diana Vreeland invented Diana Vreeland.

As far as I’m concerned, she is the definition of the exceedingly annoying je ne sais quoi so often used to explain what Frenchwomen have and the rest of us do not. Perhaps that is why she was so much more than the fashion world’s most creative editor. Throughout her long career she consistently proved that being different, being prescient, being bold and being flamboyant made for an interesting life.

She was often outrageous and readily admitted she was addicted to exaggeration, but how can one be a true original if one cannot shake up the quotidian? “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world,” she proclaimed and then she set out to make it so.

Luckily for us, she shared her vision in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she showed us that exhibitions of contemporary fashion fit quite nicely with art and culture.

In his latest tribute to his grandmother, a beautiful, heavy, 300-plus page coffee table objet, Alexander Vreeland traced her 26-year career at Harper’s Bazaar. There could be no more perfect title for his book than The Modern Woman. It says it all. In page after page of clothes, some clean and crisp, others ethereally dreamy and intricate, draw the reader into the book. At the same time I was delighted to read some of the stories that accompanied the layouts. Both the clothes and the advice in the articles — written with a spritely sophistication — seem so modern today: exercise, fresh air, eating well, and in the early decades, conversations about plastic surgery and yoga.

The pages take us on a chronological journey through her career from 1936 to 1962. As we move along we see the evolution of fashion within the context of the world it inhabited. We see Vreeland’s brilliance, her comprehension of the culture of the pre- and post-war years and the radical societal changes culminating in the Pop 60s. Most intriguingly, she understood what women wanted, how they had changed their attitudes along with their clothes. Like all true visionaries, she knew what women wanted before they knew they wanted it.

Some of the photographs she styled were fantastical —Suzy Parker in a sumptuous gown gazing up at an elephant for example — but others were something entirely different.

Long before the rest of the pack, she was on to the idea of using dressing as a means to convey an aspirational lifestyle. She seemed to understand instinctively that maybe the right dress at the right moment might change a woman’s life.

As one of the women she admired, Coco Chanel, said: “ I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little — if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny.”

N’est-ce pas ?

Why would a woman leave destiny to chance when she could theoretically change the course of her own history by simply dressing for the part and then enjoying the ensuing consequences?


I interviewed Mrs. Vreeland in her office at the Metropolitan Museum. I was very nervous, terrified I wouldn’t/couldn’t do justice to fashion journalism’s most compelling woman. At the same time I was thrilled to meet her, to see what she was wearing, listen to her maxims on life and style.

She didn’t disappoint. I suspect she never did. She had those exquisite manners and kindness that comes from being bien-élevé. She was a high point of my career.

It’s lovely for me to think she was part of my destiny and made me love my profession even more.

Perhaps Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman could change one’s destiny. I think it’s entirely possible.


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  • Sandy Jones November 1, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Tish: Loved your review of the new DV book! It was so inspiring that I just purchased it. Have a great time in the US promoting your book. I look forward to more of your words of wisdom in your blog.

  • Heather Robinson November 1, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Well, if this review doesn’t stir one’s curiosity about what looks to be a truly promising book, then I don’t know what will. Wasn’t she something? Thank you for reminding me and opening the door to your own personal connection with her as well.

    I think one of the aspects about DV that was so intriguing was that she somehow was both so wildly the philosopher about fashion (so it is easy to take it for granted that she was always ahead of her time) and yet her ideas were always deeply rooted at the same time, when you came right down to it. Again, much appreciation for pushing me over the deciding line about this gorgeous tome.

  • Jeanie October 31, 2015 at 3:22 am

    Tish, Your review makes me want to not only to read the book but to actually go out and buy it.