Chicago author Gioia Diliberto publishes the life story of an iconic fashion designer.
“There have been very few items of clothing that define an era,” says Gioia Diliberto, Chicago-based author of the just-released Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped ($29, HarperCollins). “The wrap dress was for the career woman who also wanted to be sexy—it represented a kind of life that a lot of women had or wanted to have.” Indeed, if you were a woman of style in the 1970s, there was almost certainly a DVF jersey printed wrap dress hanging in your closet. The slinky frock, with its tastefully plunging neckline and waist-hugging silhouette, was the uniform for a new kind of empowered, liberated woman—the kind who wore lipstick, sipped gin and asked for a raise. “Feel like a woman, wear a dress,” von Furstenberg famously advised, and women across the globe enthusiastically took heed; by 1976, more than a million of the iconic dresses had flown off the racks. As a young newspaper reporter, Diliberto herself once traipsed the streets of New York City in a leopard-print version. But the new book’s inspiration came more recently. “I had just finished writing a novel about Coco Chanel [2008’s The Collection: A Novel], so I was hunting around for my next subject,” she says. “I was at a vintage store in SoHo when I came upon this wrap dress. Just like that, it hit me: Diane von Furstenberg.” Profiling intriguing women was familiar territory—Diliberto has previously penned biographies of Chicago reformer Jane Addams; the first “celebutante,” Brenda Frazier; and Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife—and von Furstenberg’s sometimes-shocking story as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who grows up to found a fashion empire proved a fitting subject. The countless hours Diliberto spent with the designer have yielded not just the revealing story of the grande dame of style, but a compelling history of the intersection of fashion, popular culture and, most prominently, feminism. “[DVF] was ‘leaning in’ long before that was a phrase,” Diliberto says. “I think her life epitomizes the trajectory of women’s role in society. She’s a pioneer.”