Before there was Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour, the fashion industry was ruled by an Irish woman from Dublin.
Carmel Snow possessed an eagle eye, transforming Harper’s Bazaar, a tired and dowdy magazine, into a dynamic, game-changing publication. During her career, she made household names of Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Lauren Bacall, Cecil Beaton, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Carmel was born in Dalkey, County Dublin. Her father Peter White had established a career exporting Irish crafts before he died when Carmel was just five years old. Her mother was a prominent dress-maker who was driven by a strong work ethic. Soon after her husband’s death, she moved the family to Chicago in search of a better life and opportunities.
When Carmel was a teenager, the family moved to New York where he mother took up the helm at the exclusive T.M. & J.M. Fox store. Carmel once stated it was here that her “apprenticeship as an editor had begun”.
Carmel would travel to Paris with her mother to view the couture collections. When World War I broke, she was put in charge of the female Red Cross Workers in Paris.
In 1921, Carmel returned to New York where she was offered a job as assistant fashion editor at Vogue Magazine. She went on to become Fashion Editor at the age of 39. However, her career had stalled and she took the position of Fashion Editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, quickly becoming Editor-in-Chief in 1934. Determined that the magazine should cater not only for the well-dressed woman but the “well-dressed mind”, Carmel would keep daily notes and clippings on topics she thought her readers should know about.
One day she was at the St Regis hotel when she spotted a woman dancing in a white lace Chanel dress with flowers in her hair. Inspired, she promptly offered her a job. The woman was Diana Vreeland and she would go on to become a legendary editor-in-chief at Vogue.
Just as Anna Wintour is recognized for her iconic bob and sunglasses, Carmel created her own signature look of tailored Balenciaga suits and pale blue curled hair. She finished her outfits with a string of pearls - a nod to Coco Chanel.
Carmel lived and breathed fashion. She ate little but was fond of liquid lunches. Indeed she was famous for dozing off at fashion shows after a few too many cocktails. She retired just a few years before her death in 1961 at the age of 74.
Carmel Snow made Harper’s Bazaar one of the most influential magazines of the era. However her legacy has been all but forgotten. Richard Avedon said, “she faded before stardom became a thing. There weren’t stars in her day”.
* Herstory celebrates Carmel Snow’s contribution to the fashion industry as part of a multi-disciplinary arts platform that will tell the stories of lost extraordinary Irish women. For more information, visit herstory.ie.