(c) 2012, Bloomberg News.

(c) 2012, Bloomberg News.

Assiduously but (very much unlike her subject) unassertively, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart makes a case for Diana Vreeland as one of the 20th century's premier figures.

When you finish reading "Empress of Fashion" (Harper, $35), you're convinced Cleopatra could not have been more fascinating.

Mrs. Vreeland, as she was widely known, had a career that fell into three phases, all of them spectacular: fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar (1937-62); editor-in-chief of Vogue (1963- 71); and special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1971 until shortly before her death in 1989).

Stuart explodes a few myths, including Vreeland's purported Paris childhood. (She grew up, prosaically, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.) To be fair, she called "D.V.," her witty and epigrammatic 1984 memoir, "faction."

Stuart is a believer but not a partisan. She thinks Conde Nast had no choice but to fire Vreeland from Vogue in 1971. The magazine was losing money, her budgets were astronomical and she refused, as she always had, to hear anything she didn't want to.

But that refusal was also her strength: an absolute faith in the truth of the imagination, which she had developed as a defense against a mother who saw her as ugly and disappointing.

Vreeland was more than an editor and a curator. She worshipped inventiveness, "the divine spark," and celebrated personal freedom. Her astonishing Vogue spreads and her later museum shows used fashion to project an entire world view.

It's difficult to imagine Grace Coddington, Vogue's current creative director, in the same room with Vreeland. And in fact they never met.

Born in Wales, Coddington began her career as a model, and her memoir, "Grace" (Random House, $35), is written with the cool assurance of someone who long ago got used to being the prettiest person in the room.

The 2009 documentary "The September Issue" showed her butting heads with Vogue's icy editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. In the book she talks frankly about "how much significance Anna places on willpower trumping feelings."

She has spent her life among the glitterati, and at 71 she has no qualms about dishing the brats (Karl Lagerfeld, Annie Leibovitz) while still respecting their creativity. But she acknowledges that she's "barely read two books" in her life, and her writing is functional at best.

I would have been readier to dismiss her if I hadn't also pored over "Vogue: The Editor's Eye" (Abrams, $75), which pays tribute, via photographs, reproductions of spreads and essays, to the magazine's fashion editors.

As with text, an editor's work is mostly invisible to the audience and it should be. (We register the photographers, the models, the settings and the clothes.) Yet Coddington's narrative-based work stands out.

The book includes Steven Meisel's groundbreaking 1992 grunge shoot; the Annie Leibovitz "Alice in Wonderland" pictures from 2003; and a stupendous 1991 Arthur Elgort shot of Linda Evangelista in a tartan coat and a black feathered hat, high-kicking behind a kilted piper. Coddington engineered them all.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scott Schuman has been posting pictures on the Sartorialist since 2005. His blog chronicles great looks on city sidewalks, from street to haute.

"The Sartorialist: Closer" (Penguin, $30, paper), his second anthology, testifies to his generous eye, celebrating some 500 personal styles over a wide range of races, classes and ages but not body types. You won't find plus sizes here.

Antonio Lopez (1943-87) was the most renowned fashion illustrator of the 1970s and '80s. "Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco" (Rizzoli, $65) collects some of his finest work, along with many of the photographs (featuring his muses Jane Forth, Donna Jordan and Jerry Hall) he made and worked from.

His '60s illustrations are bewitchingly psychedelic, but it was in the '70s that Antonio (as he always signed himself) reached full maturity.

His eccentric manner combined highly individualized faces, quirky perspectives and styling that (thanks largely to his lifelong partnership with Juan Ramos) is as intense as what you see in Vogue's extravagant shoots.

Like those magazine spreads, these drawings create their own world. With their trust in "the divine spark," they speak to the influence of Vreeland, which endures long after both of their deaths.

bc-books-fashion (TPN)