“Fashion is an element as mysterious as uranium and just as explosive, but light- lighter than air”
Carmel Snow (1887-1961), the pioneering Editor-in-Chief of Harpers Bazaar, was considered the most powerful fashion arbiter in America from the 1930s to the 1950s. Born Carmel White in Dalkey, Dublin in 1887, she moved to New York with her mother as a child. Her father Peter died before the family emigrated, leaving her mother Annie to take over management of the Irish Village Concession at the Chicago World Fair and eventually establish herself as a prominent dressmaker to wealthy socialites in New York.
During her formative years, Carmel began to travel to the Paris collections with her mother and her love for fashion was ignited. Described as slim and pretty with her Irish accent intact, Carmel was well connected and defied the perceptions of the biased Protestant upper-class against Irish Catholics. She went to Paris during the First World War and was put in charge of the female Red Cross Workers. She returned to New York well connected and in 1921 was offered a job as assistant fashion editor at Vogue Magazine by Condé Nast.
She was considered the ‘eagle eye’ and a rising star at Vogue. In 1926, at the age of 39, she was appointed fashion editor and also married her husband George Palen Snow. She began her family the following year and gave birth to three daughters in quick succession, reportedly only taking one week off for each pregnancy.
One of Carmel’s brothers, Tom White, had become general manager of the Hearst publishing organisation in 1929. While Carmel had promised Nast she would not take a job at the rival house, her career at Vogue had stalled and she took a position of Fashion Editor at the stale and dowdy Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Here, she wasted no time rejuvenating the art department and became Editor-in-Chief in 1934.
Carmel would come into work every day with a ‘bag of scraps’: notes, memos and clippings on things she thought her readers should know about. She was determined that the magazine should cater not only for the well-dressed woman but the “well-dressed mind”.
Among the talents she discovered and nurtured was a Hungarian sports and news photographer called Martin Munkacsi. In 1933 she convinced him to shoot the December edition’s ‘Palm Beach’ bathing suit editorial. Speaking no English, he managed to instruct the model to run towards the camera while he captured the image. Up until then, no model had been shown in motion; fashion photography was irrevocably changed. Another discovery was the Russian art director Alexey Brodovitch who pioneered a new look for American magazines and turned Harpers into an admired and influential publication.
In 1936, Carmel saw a woman on the dancefloor at the St Regis hotel in a white lace Chanel dress with flowers in her hair and offered her a job at Harpers Bazaar. The woman was Diana Vreeland, widely regarded as the ‘greatest fashion editor of all time’ who went on to become editor-in-chief of Vogue.
With her pale blue hair always coiffed into curls and a string of pearls permanently clasped around her neck, Carmel was the most important woman at the Paris collections. She was responsible for coining the phrase ‘the New Look’ when she witnessed Christian Dior’s iconic collection in 1947. She was also a loyal supporter of Cristóbal Balenciaga, dressing in his suits exclusively for most of her life.
In a memo, William Randolph Hearst famously wrote that he knew he had no control over Carmel. She transformed a tired and dowdy magazine into a legitimate and forward-thinking publication that made household names of Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Lauren Bacall, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier Bresson and Richard Avedon, among others.
Carmel brought out the best in her staff and was revered, admired and loved by those she worked with. She rarely ate anything but was an advocate of liquid lunches and was renowned for nodding off at fashion shows after a few too many cocktails. She was forced into retirement in her 70s and replaced by her niece Nancy White.
Carmel died peacefully in her sleep in 1961 and was laid out in her coffin in a red brocade Balenciaga suit. When Richard Avedon was asked why such the legacy of such an influential force remains little known, he remarked, “she faded before stardom became a thing. There weren’t stars in her day”.