Mirabella at Vogue: Sweaters vs. humans

September 10, 1995|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,Special to The Sun

"In and Out of Vogue: A Memoir," by Grace Mirabella with Judith Warner. New York: Doubleday. 257 pages. $25

As I read "In and Out of Vogue," the autobiography of editor Grace Mirabella, I was reminded, forcibly, of a soldier of fashion. Ms. Mirabella had the courage and, perhaps, the lack of imagination of an enlistee.

Born in Newark, N. J., of a middle-class, Italian-American, "Depression" parentage, Ms. Mirabella was self-made. While many other women of her generation hoped for the support of a husband, Ms. Mirabella relied on herself. Yet she was no feminist; hard work, not theory, was her guide, and she was an individual rather than a party member.

She chose retail fashions, realizing that one must move from the bottom up; Gimbels, Macy's training squad, a series of humble jobs at Saks Fifth Avenue. Her happy alliance with Vogue came (( sooner than she expected, but she never forgot the lessons of her early years, and she resisted the exoticism prevailing at Vogue in the belief that real-life clothes must move easily on active women.

The weak point of "In and Out of Fashion" is, perhaps, the very quality that helped her to success. If taken literally, the autobiography leads one to the belief that its author steered clear of all entangling emotional relationships until she was over 40, when she met and married the renowned cancer surgeon William Cahan. The book lacks personalities and, fortunately, amateur psychiatry, as well. But at times one is persuaded that a good cashmere sweater is of more interest than a human being!

Surrounded by seductive tinsel elitism, Ms. Mirabella never forgot her own plain roots. She was able to enjoy her entree into this society while remaining essentially an observer, an outsider. The proverbial inferiority complex never seemed to complicate the steadiness of her march forward.

The most interesting section of the book - all too brief - is the description of the symbiotic relationship between Diana Vreeland and the author. They were an unlikely tandem in which mutual respect and friendship were engendered by opposites: fantasy chic and realism. Grace Mirabella was an indispensable aide-de-camp to the then-editor in chief. When Ms. Vreeland's style became dated, her position shaky, and she was on the way out, she turned to Ms. Mirabella, who has written:

"I never wanted to see that look on Vreeland's face again - for I had become her all-time greatest fan - but I never loved the Vreeland legend - her 'Pink is the navy blue of India,' or 'the bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb."

Diana Vreeland was replaced as editor in chief by Grace Mirabella, in a 17-year tenure. The two colleagues never spoke to one another again.

Through the years, Ms. Mirabella's views changed slowly; women's health and general well-being often replaced hemlines and textures on the pages of Vogue. When it was her turn to lose favor (suddenly), and "In" became "Out," as her title tells us, Rupert Murdoch decorated her with a magazine of her own. But like General MacArthur, dismissed at the height of his power, the wound continued to fester.

Grace Mirabella, fashion editor in chief, is the centerpiece of this book, but for this reader, the image of the good soldier of fashion is indelible.

* Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgins and Other Endangered Species" (1994) and "Under the Canopy" (1982). She was publisher of both Harper's Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

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