With “Balenciaga: Spanish Master” at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in Manhattan, a new edition of Diana Vreeland’s “Allure” was strangely well-timed. The first edition appeared in 1980, when Vreeland was special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she organized costume shows of Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, among other legends. She worked on “Allure” with Christopher Hemphill, a process that took three years as Vreeland sought the elusive quality of personality in images of celebrities and models, in their gestures and sometimes violent expressions – a special condition for pictures of Maria Callas – and Mr. Hemphill did his best to oblige her. He recorded their conversations as they went along. In the original foreword, Mr. Hemphill wrote: “I went through archives going back to the beginnings of the century. Mrs. Vreeland often emphasized that we were only re-editing other people’s editing, but in our working and reworking of the material, it became our own.”
Looking at the new, weighty edition, with an additional foreword by Marc Jacobs, I am struck by how well the choices hold up more than 30 years later. Among the opening images are those of the coronation of King George V in 1911. Even if one doesn’t know about Vreeland’s fascination with military pomp, one would know that the precision of the ceremony – the lines of horses and soldiers, the palace gates held allure for Vreeland beyond the actual occasion. “I don’t want to sound like someone who remembers 1911 that clearly,” she wrote. “But, of course, one’s childhood memories remain the most vivid. And I was born in Paris at such an extraordinary time. I saw the whole beginning of the century.” “Beyond Fashion” – that was Mr. Hemphill’s suggestion for the title. In a way, those words perfectly encompass the spirit of what he and Vreeland were after, an idea that became clear only with time. You see this arresting but indefinable quality in Carl Van Vechten’s portrait (1958) of a dreamily somber Gloria Vanderbilt, in a picture of droopy-eyed Gen. Charles de Gaulle lighting a cigarette (1945), and in one of Callas baring her teeth at a process server. There are plenty of fashion photographs in “Allure,” like one of a model wrapped in Mongolian lamb, as well as the great Paris images of Irving Penn. But it’s the choices of the two collaborators that ultimately engage the reader – even if we are sometimes repulsed by them. That is what Mr. Jacobs zeroed in on in his essay. “We have tried to impart the immediacy of our adventure,” Mr. Hemphill wrote. What would Vreeland make of the Internet? Or of a site like Polyvore, with its independent, self-styled editors? Can fashion editors today make that kind of difference? And if allure isn’t the compelling, hard-to-define quality of a consuming age, what would it be?