Thursday, 4 July 2013

Last-Year Reads: In and Out of Vogue by Grace Mirabella

I didn’t think I would like Grace Mirabella – replacement for Diana Vreeland as editor of American Vogue, and responsible for bringing real life into the magazine's pages. That’s partly because I don’t think I’m a huge fan of real life in the pages of fashion magazines. I chuckle indulgently at when they try and do everyday fashion in Vogue, with £250 so-called cheap buys, and immediately flick onto the glossy couture shoots. I’d take that any time over the blandness of Glamour or the bitchiness of Grazia.

My reading of In and Out of Vogue, Grace Mirabella’s autobiography, has undoubtedly been coloured by the Pamflet Salon I went to on Tuesday, where Amanda Mackenzie Stuart spoke about her biography of Diana Vreeland. Reading this book, it’s hard not to see Mirabella squaring up against the legend of Vreeland, to paraphrase Mirabella herself, Vreeland’s “dress-up fantasy” taking on her “real life”. It’s certainly a judgement many used against Mirabella when her editorship was announced in 1971: Hebe Dorsey’s of the International Herald Tribune proclaimed, “fashion will never be the same” while Andy Warhol bitched that she would make the magazine middle class (the horror!). Yet over the course of her editorship, she took readership from the shrinking 400,000 at the end of Vreeland’s command to over 1.2 million by the time she was sacked in 1988.

It’s hard not to be won over by Mirabella’s less-than-glamorous assessment of herself. She was the outsider from New Jersey. She found fashion shoots hard. She didn’t have the easy moneyed society background typical of Vogue girls. People liked her because she was a straight-talker, she was loyal and worked hard. And, for a new generation of working woman, striving to assert themselves professionally, they could see themselves in the version of Vogue she created.

You can see it in the text from her very first issue as editor in July 1971: "What we want to say first about the clothes you find in these pages is: just that", it proclaims. "You-are-going-to-find-clothes!! And you are going to find the clothes you’ve been looking for clothes you can see your lawyer in or your lover or go to the park in when the rest of the company is wearing 3 to 6X. Clothes to enjoy yourself in.” Compare this to the tone of a Vreeland-in-charge editorial from the month before (as quoted in my Vintage Tips for Summer City Style post): "You can go to town in bare legs and a short short skirt ... Here you are with those all-American legs of yours getting nice and brown ... and you haven't worn shorts in town yet? Don't let another minute go by! There's never been a season when shorts - and short, short skirts - looked so absolutely correct and adorable." I certainly know whom I’d rather be dressed by when going to see my lawyer.

But it’s not really a case of Vreeland vs Mirabella. Mirabella is open in her praise for her predecessor. When she was struggling to find her niche within the magazine in the 1960s, it was Vreeland who tells her honestly and directly, “You belong at Vogue. We will just have to find the right place for you” before promoting Mirabella to be her executive assistant, responsible for making sure the fantasies could be interpreted into reality. Working with her, Mirabella soon “began to hear the thought behind the fantasy … I also saw the woman I’d twice half perceived and mistrusted – the straight, honest, perceptive woman I’d talked about in the hall and at lunch about my job future – was real, more real in fact, than the frothy concoction she whipped into action every morning to keep the game of being herself going.”

Mirabella goes further and criticizes the “official guardians”, such as Carrie Donovan, Polly Mellen and Andre Leon Talley, for only allowing the D.V. the legend to remain. “It’s been heartbreaking for me to see Vreeland reduced to a caricature”, she writes, “her humanity lost in public memory. But that seems to be what fashion demands.” I found this statement so fascinating that I asked Mackenzie Stuart if this was what she’d encountered when she was speaking to people during her research for the Vreeland biography. It wasn’t, she said – in fact, it had almost gone the other way – that people were now eager to dismiss this caricature. Perhaps our legends are now allowed to be endowed with some intelligence as well as great style.

Mackenzie Stuart also said Grace Mirabella had been wonderfully generous in assisting her research. I can’t help but think this seems to be one way of readdressing the caricature or, in part, her way of apologizing to Vreeland. For, as happened when Carmel Snow betrayed Edna Woolman Chase and Conde Nast, when Mirabella was announced as editor, Vreeland “disappeared” from her life. Mirabella notes this isn’t something she was proud of but “professionally I had no choice but to make Vreeland disappear.”

As Vreeland’s character perfectly suited the mood of the 1960s, Mirabella was able to shift the mood of the magazine to match the changing world of the 70s. It was a moment where Mirabella’s desire for ease and comfort for a new active generation of women what matched by American sportswear coming into its own, when “a new generation of designers stripped the idea of casual dressing down to its barest ingredients and came up with a new style of dressing that was so pure, so light, and so true to the move and contour of a woman’s boy that they redefined the entire notion of clothes.”

And so, as the 1970s shifted into the 80s and designers became personalities and empires, Wall Street became home to the “Masters of the Universe”, and Christian Lacroix started creating extravagant puffball skirts, Mirabella found herself out of sympathy with the mood of the period and no longer to be Vogue’s editor for the times. Despite the impressive readership figures, she found herself unceremoniously booted out in favour of Anna Wintour, and her new vision for the magazine.

Mirabella went on to set-up and edit Mirabella (see what they did with the title?) for Rupert Murdoch’s empire (which eventually folded in 2000). Her aim, she states in the book, was not a fashion magazine with other things in it, but an intelligent magazine for a woman’s world, with fashion as one part of its overall remit. That aim seems laudable but, sadly, I don’t think we’re anywhere nearer to it with today’s mainstream magazines. So possibly it was fantasy that won over "real life" in the end … and I finished the book thinking that might not be such a good thing after all.

Isn’t it possible to have both? To address real life wants and needs, while embracing the pleasures of some delicious fantasy and creativity? To prove they might not be as far apart as they sometimes appear to be, I wanted to finish on this quote on style. It’s from In and Out of Vogue and it’s the words of Grace Mirabella:

“What I’ve always cared about, passionately, is style. Style is how a woman carries herself and approaches the world. It’s about how she wears her clothes and it’s more: an attitude about living. Dressing up in the most expensive thing around has nothing to do with style. Style transcends money, fashion trends, “prettiness”.

Couldn’t it equally sum up the philosophy of Diana Vreeland?

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  1. How interesting to read your perspective on this book! And I'm so glad you were able to see Mackenzie Stuart and ask her about Mirabella's involvement in her biography. I can't help but think that The Eye Has to Travel film would have been so much more interesting had they included interviews with Mirabella.

    1. Yes and, interestingly enough, Mackenzie Stuart also described herself as an outsider in fashion, as Mirabella did. I wonder if this "outsider" viewpoint - to greater or lesser degrees (how much of an outsider can you be when editing Vogue?!) makes for a more complete, or certainly more interesting, take on fashion subjects.


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