In February, Vogue published a glowing profile of Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria. The article marveled at al-Assad’s long limbs, her fashion sense, her analytical mind. It gushed over the “democratic” running of her household, and mentioned several times her wish for peace.
- DV by Diana Vreeland. 208 pages. Ecco. $16.99.
In March, Syrian protests against the President Bashar al-Assad-led government began and, as they continued, protesters were beaten, arrested, gassed, and killed in ever increasing numbers. More than 700 have been killed to date, and the protests show no sign of abating.
The kissy profile “A Rose in the Desert,” written in much the same gushy language as your average profile of Angelina Jolie, just gets more and more embarrassing as Syria’s leaders kill more and more of their own people. It became a bit of a public relations nightmare as everyone rushed to shame Vogue for such an oblivious worldview. The magazine defended itself at first, but it has since been removed the profile from its website. The bad taste and bad timing cannot be so quickly wiped away.
The fashion world has frequently positioned itself as so apolitical that it becomes actually immoral. (See also: Coco Chanel’s affair with a German officer during the occupation of Paris, Time’s lighthearted profile of European dictators’ wives in the late ’20s, Kenneth Cole’s season of “homeless-inspired” clothing, etc.) Fashion has always been among the most out of touch of all the art forms, with its fashion spreads full of $3,000 pairs of shoes during an economic recession. The fashion insider would simply argue that’s the point — it’s an industry built on fantasy, darling.
Reading Diana Vreeland’s memoir DV, it is clear to me that when she was running Vogue — from 1963 to 1971 — she absolutely would have approved a puff piece on a dictator’s wife. A profile of a strong woman in a traditionally macho culture? And she’s photogenic and using her family’s wealth (don’t ask!) on the most tasteful designers? Well, of course!
Vreeland may have come into this world as a homely and ignored child, by her own admission, but she soon began gallivanting around Europe, having dresses made in Paris, vacationing in Bavaria, fraternizing with the greatest artists and designers of the time. Of course, the time was the 1930s and ’40s, and, reading DV, you could hardly imagine that the continent was in the process of fracturing.
Vreeland happened to be in Munich at the Vier Jahreszeiten on the Night of the Long Knives. Above her head, 14 men were murdered on Hitler’s orders. She mentions this briefly in DV — but it’s really only a set-up for the story of Nazi officers getting drunk and running around the garden in women’s underwear. From reading her accounts of life in occupied Paris, you’d be forgiven for overlooking that “occupied” part. At a party, Vreeland runs into Ray Goetz, “the most amusing man who ever lived.” “Oh, Ray! Isn’t it awful about the war?” she asked him. “He turned. He looked at me for just a minute — just a split second — and asked, ‘What war?’”
Reading DV is like eating cake — insubstantial, maybe even a teensy bit lethal, and yet completely delightful. It’s a world where Nazis are merely silly nuisances, the greatest inconvenience of World War II was Chanel closing shop, and any ugly duckling can transform herself into a swan. All of this is fine for the infrequent dip into the shallow. Simply ignore the fact that up close swans are spiteful, nasty creatures, and that too much cake can induce vomiting. • 17 May 2011