Before there was Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour, the fashion industry bowed to the opinion of an Irish woman. Carmel Snow (nee White) came from the South Dublin coastal village of Dalkey.
Like so many Irish at the turn of the 20th century, Snow’s family had made the journey to the new world of America for a better life.
Her father Peter White had established a career exporting Irish crafts before his untimely death when Carmel was just five years old. Her mother a determined woman with an extremely strong work ethic followed her husband’s path and within two years of his death had begun to move the family to Chicago.
Eventually, when Carmel was in her teens the family made the move to New York where he mother took up the helm at the exclusive T.M. & J.M. Fox store. It was from this that Carmel would hone her fashion abilities.
According to Penelope Rowland’s biography of Snow, A Dash of Daring, Snow recalled of the time, “My apprenticeship as an editor had begun”.
She would join her mother on trips to Paris to view the couture shows. They went essentially as spies, seeing what was on trend so that it could be translated for customers at home.
But Carmel strived for more. She wanted to be writing about the couture shows, not stealing the designs. So when the chance came to cover for Harrydele Hallmark who had fallen ill just before the Paris collections, Carmel seized it.
Her job was to take notes for, “What Well-dressed Woman are Wearing” the fashion column Hallmark wrote each week for The New York Times under the pseudo name Anne Rittenhouse.
“Here at last was something I felt I could do”, said Snow.
After this, there was no looking back. Hallmark helped set a meeting up between Carmel White and Edna Chase, the then editor of Vogue. It was a success and Miss White of Vogue was born.
Starting out in Vogue as assistant fashion editor in 1922, she began to make a name for her self. Thanks to her experience with her dressmaker mother at the shows in Paris, Carmel had a well-trained eye for styling.
She had also inherited the work ethic of her mother. Her own daughter Brigit would later recall: “It was instilled in Mummy from her mother that work mattered.”
Although Carmel’s mother was in her own right a very successful woman she somehow held a jealousy towards her daughter. Snow spoke of how her mother would call her up in Vogue to remind her that it wouldn’t last.
Undeterred, Snow immersed herself in the magazine. For her it wasn’t just a job but a way of life.
“She was deeply interested in people, all kinds of people,” said a colleague. She threw her self into the social life of the magazine.
While her worklife was booming, this was the 1920’s and Snow, now in her 30s, was still single. She may have been socialising with all of the elite of New York but many of the men she was meeting were divorced. As an Irish Catholic, these weren’t exactly matches made in heaven.
When George Palen Snow came on the scene Carmel was smitten, despite his non-conventional looks and stutter. He was from an old New York family and had never been married. For the Irish immigrant this was a step up in the social ladder.
When she was 39 Carmel was promoted to fashion editor at Vogue. This coincided with her marriage to Snow. It was obvious by Carmel’s strategic moves in her personal and professional life that she was aware of their certain entanglement.
This was the New York of the turn of the 20th century when women did not usually hold leading roles in the workplace. She had married late and gave birth to three children very quickly.
Such was her work ethic and perhaps her strive to stay on top in her career, it was reported that Snow took just one week off after each pregnancy.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Carmel’s brother, Tom White became general manager of Conde Nast’s rival publishing firm Hearst. Once again, Snow saw her personal and private lives collide to open up opportunities. She was also ready for a new challenge as she had often suggested moving Vogue photography out of the studio but each time it was shut down.
In what was to become the most pivotal moment in her career, she decided to make the bold move of breaking her word with Nast to move to the enemy lines at Hearst. Letters to her at the time show Nast was apoplectic.
Throughout her time at Vogue, Snow had maintained a tight relationship with Nast. He spent time afterhours teaching her the ropes, helping her to get a handle on magazine layout. Snow would always credit Nast for teaching her everything she knew while Nast never spoke to her again.
Her next challenge was to bring the tired rag that was Harper’s Bazaar to the forefront of fashion. According to the Women’s Museum of Ireland, which have been holding an online exhibit on Snow, she came into work regularly 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”.
At Harper’s Bazaar, she was to change the world of fashion photography. Among the talents she discovered and nurtured was a Hungarian sports and news photographer called Martin Munkacsi. Snow convinced him to shoot the December edition’s ‘Palm Beach’ bathing suit editorial. With her direction he instructed the model to run towards the camera while he captured the image.
Up to this, models had been little more than live mannequins. According to A Dash of Daring, her old colleague and now rival at Vogue, Edna Chase, allegedly sniffed “farm girls jumping over fences”, when she saw the images.
In 1936, she was at the St Regis hotel, New York, when she noticed a woman dancing in a white lace Chanel dress with flowers in her hair. She promptly offered her a job. This woman, Diana Vreeland,’ would go on to become a legendary editor-in-chief at Vogue.
Just as Anna Wintour is known for her her bob and sunglasses, Carmel created her own look of pale blue hair always coiffed into curls. Every outfit was adorned with a string of pearls around her neck, something she had copied from Coco Chanel. Her designer of choice was 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. Snow came into her own at Harper’s Bazaar with her eye for spotting era-defining talent. She transformed an ailing magazine into a groundbreaking and forward-thinking publication.
Her Harper’s Bazaar embodied a changing world with its choice of photographers, artists and writers. Snow made household names of people like Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Lauren Bacall, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon.
She also lived the fashion lifestyle 24/7. 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 afew short years before her death in 1961 at the age of 74. Forever the lover of fashion, Carmel was laid to rest in a red brocade Balenciaga suit.
Snow transformed Harper’s Bazaar into one of the most influential magazines of its time. She is also responsible for spotting one of fashions most revered editors Diana Vreeland. Yet her legacy is almost non-existent. The reason why remains a mystery but it may be that as Richard Avedon said, “she faded before stardom became a thing. There weren’t stars in her day”.