Thursday, 9 May 2013

Last-Year Reads: The World of Carmel Snow


After reading Edna Woolman Chase’s Always in Vogue, I felt like I had to sit down and spend some time in the company of her great publishing rival, Carmel Snow. Snow left Vogue to become fashion editor and eventually editor of Vogue’s chief competitor, Harper’s Bazaar. The World of Carmel Snow was published in 1962, eight years after the Woolman Chase book but, my goodness, it seems like a century away. It was published after Snow’s death, written up from interviews with Mary Louise Aswell, fiction editor for Snow on Bazaar and who bookends Snow’s words with her own commentary. I had wondered if the supposed differences between Woolman Chase and Snow were hype building on the part of the press but you can feel the marked differences between the two women in every word of this book. It’s light, there’s a lot less self-justification and there’s simply more fun. Snow, it appears, was willing to try things out and make mistakes as her famous quote from the book suggests, “elegance is good taste plus a dash of daring.”



There’s a fair proportion of the book devoting to answering the story of her defection from Vogue, the cause of so much pain to Woolman Chase and Nast. She describes working under Woolman Chase as “almost like being back under my mother’s thumb,” and notes that rather than preparing to hand the reigns over to Snow, Woolman Chase was actually proposing demoting her to society editor. She answers the more personal attacks on her too. As Nast had been so significant to her life and career, how could she not attend his funeral? And as for her nocturnal habits? “Edna further maintained that the only time I got any sleep was when I fell asleep in my partner’s arms on the dance floor, I maintain that if my eyes were closed, it was in ecstasy.”

Even after the defection, the two would have had to deal with each other on a professional level, at the collections in Paris for example, or working together as part of the Fashion Group (established by Woolman Chase in 1930 – Snow mentions the reports she gave to the group, but no more about their dealings). The rivalry continues, with talent being poached back and forth between the magazines. Snow gets the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene; Woolman Chase takes the illustrator Bébé Bérard although, according to Snow, she “couldn’t stand Bébé’s work, and kept him on only because she knew I wanted him.”

Once you’ve read this book it’s hard to imagine how the two ever did work together, or how Woolman Chase ever managed to contain Snow and her energy and ideas. Snow moves to Bazaar in 1934, only as a fashion editor, rather than editor-in-chief. Yet she soon enforces her viewpoint on the magazine, whether that’s in being the first women’s magazine to feature a diet feature (yeah, thanks for that Carmel!), or signing up Alexey Brodovitch to overhaul the layouts (he also did the gorgeous layout for this book, which is peppered with great imagery of Snow and the signatures of a few of the famous people she knew).

Daisy Fellowes photographed by Cecil Beaton, in open-toe sandals, 1931, via

By her own admission, Snow was fascinated – sometimes distracted – by the new. Remember Woolman’s Chase’s horror of open-toed sandals in the city? Snow describes Daisy Fellowes (then Bazaar's Paris correspondent) walks into a collection “looking as no woman had dared appear in a city before. Her sun-burned legs were bare, her red toenails peeped out from open sandals, and her dress was of white cotton piqué”. Rather than being outraged, Snow was fascinated and subsequently went on to feature cotton as a suitable fashion for haute couture. Bazaar was also the magazine to achieve lots more firsts, including writing about hair-dye, featuring jeans, as well as starting the custom of listing clothing stockists beyond New York City.

Snow devoted a lot of “furious activity” to her ambition to “present the best in every field” to her readers, whether that was fashion, photography, art or writing. Her career advice, as given in the book, could read as a riposte to Woolman Chase: “The greatest treasure in a fashion career – if you have it, guard it carefully – is an open, adventurous mind.”

Carmel Snow with Balenciaga, via

She also talks a lot about her own instinct and intuition. Snow is superstitious in a way that stays true to her Irish Catholic upbringing, and is guided by a full range of advisers, from God to fortune tellers, in her decision-making. It seems to work. She seems to have the ability to latch onto the next big thing, and quickly. “Whether you are planning to make fashion or sell it, photograph it or promote it you will have to keep flexible and ready to take off at a moment’s notice on a new tack”, she writes. “There is no room for prejudice or cliché”. Snow describes being the only one applauding Balenciaga’s first solo collection, where you could “feel the hate in the room.” Of course, she gets the final say in the matter: “When I turned over the Paris issue of Harper’s Bazaar to Balenciaga’s collection, the fashion world began to pay attention. The rest is fashion history.”

Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland at Harper's Bazaar, via

Snow builds an impressive team of adventurous thinkers around her at the magazine. As well as Brodovitch, she famously hired Diana Vreeland, sensing her “daring originality and taste.”

Lucile Brokaw, shot by Martin Munkacsi for Harper's Bazaar, December 1933, via

There are the photographers too: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, turned over by Vogue but, for Snow, “from the moment I saw her first colour photographs I knew that the Bazaar was at last going to look the way I had instinctively wanted my magazine to look.” And she gets photography out of the studio and into the real world with that famous swimsuit shoot with Martin Munkacsi in 1933: “The resulting picture of a typical American girl in action, with her cape billowing out behind her, made photographic history.”

Carmel Snow with Chanel: presumably taken just after Chanel has asked Snow to "squeeze her buttocks", via

There’s an impressive cast of supporting characters who dance across the pages of this book, including Anita Colby, Truman Capote (first published by Bazaar) and Chanel – subject of my favourite gossipy aside in the book, “when she urges you, as she frequently does, to squeeze her buttocks, you find they’re as hard as a cement ball.” The models she found and featured for the first time included Lauren Bacall and Suzy Parker.

The World of Carmel Snow is an inspiring read because of Snow’s passion for her work, and her dedication to being a bit daring. She demanded the same of her staff, and she ultimately demands the same of her readers: “And if fashion isn’t your field, as probably it is not for some of you who read my story, remember this: whatever your career may be – in the home – in business – in the arts, make it a love affair.”

Buy this from Last-Year Girl Books on Etsy

2 comments:

  1. Snow was awesome, no-one today could even touch her level of imagination and passion.

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    Replies
    1. I think I have to agree. Looking back over her achievements, they are just so impressive! I guess she also benefited from much more creative freedom that would be awarded to editors of the big mags today - more is the pity!

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