Diana Vreeland, special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, is the dowager empress of American fashion. While she was editor of Vogue from 1962 to '72, following a stint as fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, she revolutionized not only the look of the magazine but the prevailing standards of beauty and elegance.
Since she began consulting for the Costume Institute in 1972, Mrs. Vreeland has accomplished there, too, a Pygmalion-like transformation of a dowdy department into a glamorous showcase.
''La Belle Epoque,'' which will remain on view through Sept. 4, is Mrs. Vreeland's 11th annual exhibition for the Costume Institute, and it shows all the signs of becoming one of her most popular shows. The belle epoque was that incandescent period between 1900 and World War I so impeccably chronicled by Proust, a time when extravagance in dress and behavior blurred the line between romance and self-parody. With her usual flair for creating an evocation as well as an exhibition, Mrs. Vreeland has animated mannequins wearing the gowns of Sarah Bernhardt, Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra, Lillie Langtry, and others in an atmosphere permeated by music, painting, and perfume. She has even gone so far as to re-create the heady environment of Maxim's.
As the prime mover behind so many fashion events and personalities, Mrs. Vreeland has become something of a legendary figure herself. Is she playing a part she really feels - or is she, as a New York Magazine writer recently described her, ''one of our greatest actresses, systematically parading her precariously luxurious life as a way of earning her daily madeleine''?
With little hope of solving the mystery but a determination to gain at least a look behind the public image, I recently found myself wedged between a stoplight-red door and a gigantic portrait of a languid, etiolated Mrs. Vreeland.
A maid ushers me into the dining room, which is more like a combination lounge and library with a wrap-around settee facing a wall of books at a right angle to the living room.
I am struck by the Maxim red - the red carpeting and walls, the red 18 th-century Indian floral print with which her decorator, Billy Baldwin, covered the walls and furniture in her living room. While waiting, I survey the scene: an incongruous melange of lithographs by Picasso and Liberman, luminous seashells perched on blackamoor wall mounts, an Apollo Belvedere bust contemplating the carpet, Rhodesian stone carvings, photographs and portraits of Mrs. Vreeland (one by Augustus John) with and without her late husband and children, a photograph of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and a Scottish silver drinking horn on a brass pedestal. The overall impression is one of exoticism.
Mrs. Vreeland enters and apologizes graciously for keeping me waiting. She has a reputation for making one feel welcome, for creating at least the illusion that one is an equal and an intimate. She is dressed in black sweater and tartan slacks with a red jersey cummerbund around her waist, accented by a bone-tooth pendant from Brazil and elephant-trunk bracelets from Thailand. Her lips and nails are crimson, and her jet-black hair frames her face like a helmet. The arms and hands are exquisitely elongated, not unlike the El Greco and Modigliani figures she admires, and despite her extreme slenderness and small stature she is a dramatic presence. There is a voice to match, the timbre of Lauren Bacall's , which speaks with enough emphasis to make the punctuation perceptible.
The tone is conversational, filled with ''Don't you thinks?'' and ''Don't you agrees?'' that have the effect of making the listener a participant. Despite her advancing years she seems as ageless as an oracle.
Mrs. Vreeland was born in Paris in what she calls ''the heart of the belle epoque'' to wealthy Scottish parents who diligently exposed Diana (pronounced de-anna) and her younger sister Alexandra to the finer things in life, such as summers in Venice and Deauville, France. ''I was born in 'belle epoque' and I love the period,'' she says. ''It's a period of life, vim, buoyancy, rowdiness, and a certain elegance.
''There's no elegance today, of course, except in the minds and spirits of a few people, but it isn't anything that anyone's striving for, because I don't think they know about it. I realize that the average person (and this isn't at all grand on my part, because I've never owned a string of pearls in my life) and even the people I have worked with all my life have never seen a real pearl. They have no idea what people are talking about. They're not just white beads! Whereas we saw (and not just because we were rich little girls - it had nothing to do with that) a lot of people with pearls. There were no cultured pearls. In those days you'd walk into the street with your pearls; there was nothing to stop you. Today nobody has real pearls anymore. Nobody. Or if they do, they're in the bank or in the safe.''
In general, Mrs. Vreeland makes no bones about her elitism, and is not ashamed of declaring even in these times, ''I believe in great wealth!''
Ironically, she disapproves of the reason most women choose fashions: to compete. ''Dress is the most active form of competition. You know, 'She's got it , I'm having it too.' I simply hate competition myself. I don't believe in it. It cuts people's originality and it cuts people's real character. But it makes the world go round, whether it's tennis or football or ice hockey.''
Mrs. Vreeland is not exactly a feminist. Although she believes it is good for women to work, she laments: ''Home life can't be as attractive as it was. It just can't be. I mean, when a man comes home in the evening everything is ready for him, and I think that will be greatly missed in another 25 years if there is even balance in the household and even balance in the market. . . . It will be a big change - don't you think? - and awfully tough on the children.''
She stresses how important it is for an individual, male or female, to aspire , to inspire, to establish a higher standard - not merely in one's career but in one's character.
It is essential, she says, ''to be the best we can be and leave the world a better place,'' she admonishes with a wave of her hand. By the ''best'' she means also the fullest expression of our uniqueness. What she is advocating is an ambitiousness of character as well as achievement, the goal of which is to match the persona with the personality inside and live one's life with joie de vivre. Judged on this basis, Mrs. Vreeland's eccentricity assumes an authenticity, and she is not so different from the young people she admires today.
''I think people have such wonderful characteristics today. I love the manners of younger people who come up to me. They speak to you and they say, 'I'm so and so, and I'm happy to meet you, and how do you do?' They're very respectful, but they're not coy and silly and shy. They're interested, and that's the only way to get off the ground. . . .''
What, finally, is she proudest of in her own life? ''Having a good disposition and being happy with my life. Not being too demanding (she pauses and smiles), but demanding enough to carry on a bit. . . .''