No doubt she will shake her head. Now that you have her attention, ask her a second question. Did she also know that Snow, born in Co. Dublin, is to fashion what John McEnroe is to tennis and what Jim Sheridan is to movies? By now she will be moving her head so vigorously her $500 hairstyle will have come undone.
“It’s extraordinary that even women who love fashion don’t know about the influence of Carmel Snow,” said author Penelope Rowlands, whose new book, “A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters,” aims to finally give Snow her rightful place in the fashion pantheon.
“I think the reason she isn’t a household name is that Carmel — editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar from 1932 to 1957 — lived before editors became stars,” said Rowlands. “But she was a force of nature, and through the pages of the magazine, she taught American women about style. And when you think she started her career in New York at a time when signs read ‘No Irish Need Apply,’ it’s extraordinary. But she had this indomitable Irish tenacity, plus she was bright, charming and had huge personal charm. If anyone was going to become a success, it was Carmel Snow.”
Born in 1887 in Dalkey, Snow was the third child of Annie and Peter White, who worked for the Irish wool industry. In 1888, Peter was chosen to head the Irish Pavilion at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, but months before it opened in 1893 he died of pneumonia.
Immediately, his feisty widow announced she would take over running the pavilion, which she did to great success. She also resolved to start a new life in America, staying in Chicago and opening the “Irish Industrial Store,” selling Irish wares. One year later she sent for her children. Carmel, then seven, and sister Christine, eight, were the first to arrive.
“Even though she was raised in America, Carmel always felt very Irish,” explained Rowlands. “She had this magic and intensity about her that was uniquely Irish. A lot of people said that about her.”
Indeed Snow was the kind of girl you couldn’t put down, heading to Paris during World War I to volunteer with the Red Cross, working with her mother in a dressmaking business White bought after relocating to New York.
In fact it would be her biannual trips to Paris with her mother to attend the collections (White cleverly copied French designs for her New York customers) that launched Snow’s publishing career.
In 1921 a New York Times writer, unable to cover the Paris shows, asked Snow to take notes for him. Her observations were so concise and smart they landed her an introduction to Vogue, where she started working in 1922 as a fashion assistant.
“Immediately they could see she had an eye for fashion,” said Rowlands. “Plus, she was fearless, and with a curiosity for anything new, she was a blast of fresh air.”
Though she rose in the ranks to the post of fashion editor, she chafed working under powerful editor Edna Woolman Chase, and a decade later jumped to rival Harper’s Bazaar as editor.
“What Carmel did when she landed at Bazaar was visionary,” explained Rowlands. “She was utterly engaged with the world, and wanted her readers to be too. She declared Bazaar would be the well dressed magazine for the well dressed mind.”
So in the pages of Bazaar, Snow not only championed designers like Chanel, Balenciaga, Pucci and Geoffrey Beene, she published fiction by Truman Capote and Katherine Ann Porter, and promoted photographers Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Richard Avedon and Cartier-Bresson, and ran illustrations by a young artist called Andy Warhol.
Snow ran articles about politics, theater, diets, all radical for the times. She hired art director Alexei Brodovitch to give Bazaar a modern look, and the now-legendary Diana Vreeland became its fashion editor. If that weren’t enough talent under one roof, in 1943 she put a young model named Lauren Bacall on the cover. No surprises here, Hollywood came calling for Bacall the day Bazaar hit the newsstands.
By the 1950s, Snow was the most powerful woman in American fashion, Bazaar’s decrees about style (“quality always”) were adopted religiously by millions. But she never forgot her heritage, and in 1953, when she discovered an Irish designer named Sybil Connolly, who later dressed Jackie Kennedy, she showcased her lace and tweed designs in Bazaar.
“I think she adored finding Sybil Connolly,” said Rowlands. “She took her to New York and introduced her around. It was thrilling to her that Ireland had never had a place in fashion, and now it did.”
Snow married New York society gentleman George Palen Snow in 1926 and had three daughters, Carmel, Mary and Brigid, but her first love was always fashion.
“Her interest was just genius,” said Rowlands. “She could spot a trend before anyone.”
But Snow was not perfect. She could be tough on underlings, and it was no secret she was a big drinker. But whatever her flaws, the always perfectly-turned out editor from Dalkey was single-handedly responsible for changing fashion magazines as we know them.
“She loved working, and it was very hard for her to let go,” said Rowlands.
Snow left Bazaar in 1957 when executives — now as concerned with advertisers as much as with fashion — felt Snow was past her prime at age 70. Undaunted, she announced she was returning to her Irish roots for a second act, and bought Rossyvera, a nine bedroom, 18th century residence a few miles from Newport, where she moved with her sister in 1958.
“She loved the Irish countryside, but I think she was lonely. She thought there would be a flood of people arriving through on the way to the Paris collections, but there weren’t,” said Rowlands.
A year and a half later, Snow returned to New York when her husband became ill. She died there on May 8, 1961. Fittingly, she was buried in Balenciaga.
“There will never be another Carmel Snow,” said Rowlands of the woman who once decreed “elegance is good taste, plus a dash of daring.”
“Her impact on the world of fashion was remarkable. I certainly don’t think the Irish know one of their own was such an icon,” said Rowlands.
Hopefully now, they will.
“A Dash of Daring” is out now on the Atria Books imprint.
Wit and wisdom
Before Snow took a stand, American editors thought the Spanish designer Balenciaga was not for American women. But Snow wisely said, “You can’t keep exciting fashion down and it’s no use trying.”
Snow once went to visit a fortuneteller and told a friend afterwards, “My dear, that women was a fool. She told me I was brilliant and intelligent and I am neither of those things. The reason I’ve succeeded is that I can make up my mind instantly one way or the other.”
In 1936, Snow learned that King Edward VIII had fallen for the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Snow cleverly commissioned portraits of her, which had to be sent from England to New York. When the boat docked, the prints were accidentally delivered to Bazaar’s publisher William Randolph Hearst. Sensing a scoop, he told Snow he was going to publish them in his newspapers first.
Immediately Carmel marched over to his office, “like a little Irish firecracker” recalled one of her assistants, and emerged triumphant with the pictures.