Queen of Harper’s Bazaar – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Carmel Snow

Carmel Snow (left) and Diana Vreeland reviewing magazine layouts in Harper’s Bazaar in December 1952. Photograph: Walter Sanders/Getty Images

Carmel Snow (left) and Diana Vreeland reviewing magazine layouts in Harper’s Bazaar in December 1952. Photograph: Walter Sanders/Getty Images

 

At Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, the current blockbuster exhibition in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – a sell-out show celebrating the French couturier – there’s a series of gorgeous rooms, each more beautifully staged and lit than the last, filled with his delicate and stunning dresses. And of course, there’s mention of Carmel Snow in the exhibition notes.

Born Carmel White in Dalkey in 1887 she went on to be, for decades in the 20th century, one of the most influential women in fashion.

In February 1947 she attended Dior’s first fashion show, in Paris, and in her report for Harper’s Bazaar where she was editor-in-chief, she noted that the dresses “have such a new look” – and so the era-defining term “New Look” was coined, heralding in a new chapter in fashion.

As well as presenting a groundbreaking style, it was somewhat of a controversial show – the dresses had cinched waists but long full skirts and so required many metres of fabric – and this at a time when Europe was still deep in postwar austerity and home dressmakers were using coupons to get material which they eked out making tight skirts.

In her typical flamboyant style Snow said of Dior’s show, “God help those who bought before they saw Dior. This changes everything”.

Back home in New York, thrilled with this fresh, optimistic new style she had seen, she championed Dior, helping to make the couturier a success.

The Irishwoman’s immersion in fashion and style began early. Her father Peter White, who was managing director of the Irish Woollen Manufacturing and Export Company, died when she was just six and her mother Annie made the move from Dublin to Chicago and then New York where she ran a successful dress shop. The work involved annual buying trips to Paris and she brought Carmel, who by the time she was 24 had secured a job with Vogue and later, with her ability to spot talent noted, had gone on to become fashion editor. She married society gentleman George Palen Snow and had three daughters and by 1934 she had defected from Condé Nast (he was infuriated) to Vogue’s arch rival, the struggling and staid Harper’s Bazaar.

Her impact on the magazine’s design and content was immediate and radical – again down to her ability to spot emerging talent. She hired the Russian émigré Alexey Brodovitch as art director, whose layout and use of typefaces were pioneering, young photographer Richard Avedon, and Diana Vreeland, as deputy fashion editor. As an editorial team it was a visionary quartet, defining a new look for glossy women’s magazines – and graphic design – that still resonates today.

To appeal, as she said, to the “well-dressed mind”, she commissioned stories from Truman Capote, Colette, Katherine Anne Porter and Evelyn Waugh, among many other literary greats, and published photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray.

She created a thoroughly modern – and daring – magazine. At a time when staged and stiff studio poses were the norm Snow’s fashion shoots were innovative not least because she took the models outdoors. Hiring photojournalist Martin Munkacsi for a swimwear shoot, the resulting spread featured a model running towards the camera on a sunny beach – and a new type of fashion photography was born.

Not everyone was wowed by this lively naturalistic approach; her rival at Vogue, Edna Chase, carped that they showed “farm girls jumping over fences”.

Despite her glamorous world – she mostly wore Balenciaga, the Spanish designer who she championed, and was never seen without her pearls – she never forgot her Irish roots.

The family’s connection to the country was strong – she spent many childhood summers in Ireland with relatives.

A great admirer of the way designer Sybil Connolly used traditional Irish fabrics and crafts, in 1953 she introduced her to US buyers and the American fashion press.

It worked. The following year a Life magazine cover featured a long red Kinsale cape and a white crochet dress by Connolly, under the headline “Irish Invade Fashion World”.

Snow retired – not voluntarily – at age 70 in 1957, dying in her sleep in 1961.

In her vivid biography A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters, Penelope Rowlands describes Snow’s vivacious spirit, how she rarely slept or ate, and had a lifelong love affair with the three-martini lunch.

Teasing out why Vreeland is now better known outside fashion circles than Snow, and with a greater reputation, Rowlands turned to Avedon for his take.

“It’s because Vreeland lasted,” the great photographer said. Carmel “was older, right? Much older, and she faded before stardom became the thing. There weren’t stars in her day”.

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