Reflecting on Diana Vreeland's Cult Book 'Allure'

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For the first in our new series celebrating fantastic tomes that are worthy of inclusion in any home library, Osman Ahmed muses on Diana Vreeland's Allure

“Vreeland – with a V! I say whenever I have to give my name over a telephone. V as in ‘victory’! V as in ‘violent’!” These were the words uttered by none other than Diana Vreeland, a woman who can be instantly recognised by her incendiary scarlet initials and strikingly beauty. Vreeland made a name for herself in the forties, alongside Carmel Snow, Richard Avedon and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar, before taking the reins at Vogue and ushering in a pulsating era of fantasy, opulence, exoticism, youth culture and out-there fashion. She was fired a decade later and her magazine of voracious visual splendour, each issue of which would explore a fabulously all-consuming theme, began to veer towards the more commercial – her scarlet-red office with its leopard skin rug was painted over in beige as a poignant analogy. Vreeland soon became a fashion consultant (or curator, in today’s parlance) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the urging of first-lady-turned-book-editor Jackie Onassis, she reignited her knack for printed matter with a tome that explored her very personal concept and understanding of ‘allure’.

Allure is essentially a fascinating collection of imagery, pedantically curated by Vreeland and historian Christopher Hemphill over the course of many years – that celebrates seemingly polar ideologies – elegance and grotesque; ancient and young; decadent grandiose and subtle nuance. It’s brimming with Vreelandian obsessions – aquiline noses, diamonds, tulips, geishas, crocodile boots, Russia! – as documented by her legendary collaborators (Steichen, Penn, Avedon, de Meyer, Beaton, Turbeville et al). Open it up and you may land on a stark paparazzi shot of the Duchess of Windsor at the funeral of her husband, or a sumptuous close-up of a single pearl placed in the crevice of an ear, or perhaps Mick Jagger shot by Cecil Beaton or Raquel Welch entertaining the troops in Vietnam. What makes these luscious monochromatic pages all the more momentous is the hyperbolic stream-of-consciousness style commentary from Vreeland herself, whose articulation is startlingly original – the kind of voice that is unheard in the infinite stream of SEO-friendly captions that dominate today's digital landscape. “Allure,” Vreeland concludes, “is something around you … like a perfume or like a scent. It’s like memory … it pervades.”

Allure by Diana Vreeland, with Christopher Hemphill, foreword by Marc Jacobs, is available from Chronicle Books.