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Diana Vreeland’s brilliant life was a triumph of form over content. Armed only with her matchless eye and galloping imagination, she was a major force in transforming women’s fashion from frivolity to commerce but she was almost alone in boosting the next leap: From commerce to art.

Long, lean and formidably chic, Vreeland dominated the American branch of high fashion from 1936, when she was hired as a columnist and later editor of Harper’s Bazaar, through 1963, when she took over as editor of Vogue, until 1971, when Vogue fired her.

Widowed, broke and 70, Vreeland appeared poised on the lip of obscurity. But fashion wasn’t finished with her. Friends negotiated a job offer from the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art to take over the musty, foundering costume collection, a job worth only sneers to her when she could be cajoled into at least considering it.

Mercedes Ruehl as Diana Vreeland at the Old Globe. Jim Cox Photo.

Mercedes Ruehl as Diana Vreeland at the Old Globe.     Jim Cox Photo.

And that’s the situation as the lights come up in the Old Globe’s White Theatre these days, where Mercedes Ruehl is doing Vreeland in Full Gallop, a solo play by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson which premiered at the Globe 20 seasons ago.

The show comes enclosed in a rococo explosion of scarlet, fringe, clutter and proud furniture, a close approximation, apparently, of the real article, famed among Vreeland fans and probably leaving an indelible mark on set designer Sean Fanning’s retinas.

Ruehl, herself an actress of noted personal style, prowles the set like a hungry panther caught in the florist’s backroom, trading air kisses over the severe black telephone and snapping instructions to a monosyllabic (and unseen) housekeeper.

As is the custom with such entertainments, the character spends most o her time explaining herself to us, the fascinated voyeurs. Using hands she can extend like foot-long stilettoes, a face that crawls and shifts as needed and shoulders of heart-breaking eloquence, Ruehl hurries us from the Parisian girlhood, watching Pavlova’s Dying Swan, through the jazz era (sitting next to Josephine Baker’s lynx at the cinema) to her bored mommy days when the Bazaar editor noticed her at a Manhattan party. (And can this lady tango? Whew!)

Ruehl’s Vreeland is Auntie Mame with the hedonism organized for a purpose. She took the Met job, of course, and launched the moribund collection into a worldwide revolution of recognizing how garments can make artistic statements. The Basque dressmaker Cristobal Balenciaga was an acknowledged master but after Vreeland’s first Met exhibition, featuring his work, was hailed as an artist.

The play Full Gallop isn’t especially pithy. She says some clever things – “I’m a great believer in vulgarity.” – but it’s the posing that counts, the sheer animal grace and sublime self-assurance. (And can this lady tango? Whew!)

Basic black with some accents is all that costumer Mark Mitchell has to work with. The challenges are reserved for Robert J. Aguilar, who must devise subtle lighting effects amidst all the crimson bounce.

Director Andrew Russell probably contrived to mostly stay out of Ruehl’s way and concentrate on helping her find the constancy in the dominant presence.

It’s easy to dismiss the entire field as frivolity but Vreeland, in 14 more landmark exhibitions at the Met, would have none of that. She defined not just an era but also became the icon an entire world before her death, beloved by audiences for the visions she revealed, by the fashion industry for its elevation to art and by museums for the example she set as a virtuoso curator.

Continues at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 25, 2015, in the White Theatre.

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The Old Globe
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Welton Jones

Welton Jones

Welton Jones has been following entertainment and the arts around for years, writing about them. Thirty-five of those years were spent at the UNION-TRIBUNE, the last decade was with SANDIEGO.COM.

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