FASHION & STYLE / The Fashion Editor from Hell: An exhibition in Manhattan is celebrating the style of Diana Vreeland, who died in 1989. Kate Constable describes the woman for whom fashion was life itself

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WORKING for her must have been a nightmare. With her black hair lacquered into a rigid helmet, her face painted Kabuki-white, those flaming red lips and cheeks, Diana Vreeland was the fashion dictator to end them all. When she died in 1989, she was already a legend. Working at US Harper's Bazaar from 1936 to 1962 and then at US Vogue until 1971, she almost single-handedly drove fashion forward in her relentless search for The Next Big Thing. And now, posthumously, she's become it. In New York this month Vreeland is being officially granted icon status in a major exhibition dedicated to her life and work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which staged the fantastical fashion exhibitions that she herself curated in her lifetime.

Diana Vreeland inhabited a bizarre world where the leather of your shoe or the weight of your stocking was of supreme importance. Being stylish took dedication and stamina: 'I used to spend my day at fittings,' she wrote in her autobiography, DV 'I had three fittings on a nightgown. Can you imagine? People say: What in the world were you doing that for? Because that's the way you got a nightgown. Too beautiful, and cost about 12 dollars . . . The life of fashion was very strenuous . . . no question about it.'

From her room at Vogue, with a leopard-spot carpet beneath her Roger Vivier-clad feet, and carmine walls covered in layouts and photographs, Vreeland would issue cryptic diktats. 'Plenty of Wops' she told David Bailey as he was about to photograph the Italian collections. She wasn't really interested in form - that bored her. Instead, in her racy way, she would get the essence of a look or an idea, often bashing slang words and foreign phrases into submission until they surrendered and expressed whatever she wanted to say. And she always got what she wanted: 'Everyone so beautifully understood,' she recalled about her time at Vogue. 'It wasn't what they might find, it was what they had to find. And if they couldn't find it, fake it. Fake it.'

Her entire metabolism was affected by the fashionable life: 'One never knew what one was going to see at a Balenciaga opening. One fainted. It was possible to blow up and die. I remember at one show in the early Sixties . . . Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn't frothing at the mouth at what I was seeing. I told her I was trying to act calm and detached because, after all, I was a member of the press. Across the way, Gloria Guinness was sliding out of her chair on to the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder. We didn't know what we were doing, it was so glorious.'

But she could be cruel. Sometimes, with those sucked-in cheeks and protruding nose, her bony body coiled in costume jewellery, she resembled nothing so much as a coiled, chic, snake. One of her 'girls' at Vogue made the mistake of thinking Vreeland wanted fur hats for a winter shoot when she wanted straw. She pounced on the unfortunate and growled, 'Fur hats in November] Are you mad?' She fired another, telling her, 'I can't stand your footsteps. I can't]'

But by the beginning of the 1970s, her brand of autocratic whimsy was out of favour. 'They wanted a New Deal there,' she said of Vogue, 'and they got it.' She was fired. But then the Metropolitan Museum offered the 69-year-old Vreeland perhaps the greatest role of her life: the post of Special Consultant at the Met's Costume Institute, where the gala opening of 'Diana Vreeland, Immoderate Style' was held last week.

Richard Martin and Harold Koda, curators of the new exhibition, admit that Vreeland herself set them tough acts to follow. All her exhibitions - her Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, her homage to Balenciaga, her 'Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design', and 'Costumes of Royal India' - were pulled together with characteristic DV vigour and pizzazz.

She never faded. Throughout her life, by sheer force of will, Vreeland turned being arrestingly plain to her advantage. As she got older, she seemed to revel in her crow's appearance and even when, at the very end of her life, she was blind, she would ask those special people who were allowed to visit her bedside, 'Is my make-up Kabuki enough?'

In these pictures, the great DV is played by Rossy de Palma, the Spanish actress made famous in the films of Pedro Almodovar (she stars in his next film, Kiki). She is not naturally Kabuki-pale. But she is spectacularly, marvellously odd- looking, with her beak of a nose and that elongated, exaggerated face that the camera loves. Cecil Beaton could have been describing de Palma when he spoke of Vreeland's 'Modigliani eyelids' and 'generously large nose'. Drawn to anyone who was startling or distinctive, DV would have loved her.

D V, D I Y: Diana Vreeland loved to decorate, but her taste was not for the faint-hearted. She was mad for Chinese red, crazy about gilt and went ga-ga over faux leopardskin upholstery. Although her New York apartment was tiny, she managed to fill it with an intriguing array of gewgaws. She piled shells on sconces and grew paper-white narcissi in large bowls of pearl chips. Syringes lying around might well be used for her vitamin B12 fixes - but they might equally be used to inject needle-point cushions with scent. She liked the extreme. She yoked together several decorative forces and left them to fight it out. 'It's all combining . . . ' she said, 'certain pictures, certain thoughts . . . it's the suggestion of something else.'

'Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style' is at the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York until 20 March, 1994

(Photographs omitted)