“The Women of Harper’s Bazaar 1936-1958” Exhibition at The Museum at FIT

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While the concept of three women sharing a single vision and purpose seems unlikely now in the era of “The Devil Wears Prada” not to mention The Real Housewives, here’s a well documented case spanning 22 years. “The Women of Harper’s Bazaar 1936-1958,” a new graduate student exhibition at The Museum of FIT, shows just how effective the collaboration of editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, fashion editor Diana Vreeland and photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, really was in producing a new spin on America’s first fashion magazine.

Carmel Snow, the Queen Mother of Fashion

Although Snow was labeled a “Benedict Arnold” for “switching sides” and leaving Vogue after 11 years, she came to Hearst with a plan. (Interestingly, many years later Vreeland would make the reverse shift when she joined Vogue as EIC in 1963). Snow’s idea was to change up fashion editorial literary content by featuring notable authors and artists as well as to bring fashion photography out of the studio to the great outdoors on varied, exotic locations.

Exhibition overview

According to her niece and successor Nancy White (sorry, can’t help thinking of the other exhibition currently at FIT which features Fairy-Tale fashion when I see these two names together), Snow had a “genius for picking other people of genius.” As legend has it, she saw Vreeland while out dancing at the St. Regis one night, liked the way she dressed and offered her a job on the spot.  After the success of Vreeland’s cheeky “Why Don’t You?” column she was hired to be Bazaar’s fashion editor.

Left: Claire McCardell hooded sweater Right: Louise Dahl-Wolfe

The third piece of the puzzle, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe was recruited for the magazine once Snow saw her pioneering work with Kodachrome film which, despite its complex processing requirements (the copper plates involved are on display here), was becoming the first widely used color film. Dahl-Wolfe delighted in taking fashion photography out of the studio and into the wider world which fulfilled Snow’s vision. Like the other two women, she was a stickler for quality and apparently drove the pressmen crazy as she would not quit until she was completely satisfied with the color values in each photograph.

Bazaar April 1958 issue Ivory Nicholson wearing hat by Adolpho.
Photo Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Shooting from Morocco to Brazil they created the 1954 photograph of a model shading herself from the sun with a beach umbrella which is featured as our lead photo. Once Vreeland became editor-in-chief of Vogue in 1962, the on-location shoot became standard practice, a feature which we now take for granted. It’s astounding to me what they were able to accomplish when you factor in the bulk of the type of equipment used back in the day.

Diana Vreeland modeling Photography by Louise Dahl-Wolfe,
color proof, featured in Harper’s Bazaar, January 1942.

Of course, Vreeland’s styling is legendary. There is a series of photos in the exhibition from 1942 entitled “Flight to the Valley of the Sun” which was shot in Arizona and has been called a “stunning moment in fashion reporting” by Vreeland biographer Eleanor Dwight. One photo shows Vreeland arranging a scarf as a belted halter top on a model who is perched on a rock ledge. When model Bijou Barrington became ill from sunstroke, Vreeland jumped into place on an iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building ledge and became the model for Dahl-Wolfe.

Elephant top

I spoke with one of the graduate student curators who mentioned that while everything used here is from the museum’s archives, certain items could be elusive. For instance, the Carolyn Schnurer elephant top (1952) was located after an extensive search, although it’s the inverse color way of the one seen on a model wearing it while kneeling on a fur rug.

Also of interest was the sleuthing involved while trying to furnish the exhibition. In one particular photo in the offices of Bazaar, Snow and Vreeland are standing near a desk appraising a potential photo, meanwhile the floor in the foreground is covered in the issue’s black and white magazine pages. The students decided to try to figure out which issue was being compiled in the thumbnail sized photo. Amazingly, the archived and finished magazine now sits open, displaying those pages in a case under the now reproduced and enlarged photo.

Gown by Charles James

In the last part of the exhibition there are clothing items that represent important components of a woman’s wardrobe at the time including a Mainbocher gray wool skirt suit (1948), a Claire McCardell serape print dress (1952), a Christian Dior coat (1954), a Charles James evening gown (1952) and a Claire McCardell wool (yes, wool!) bathing suit (1946). They are shown beside magazine pages which featured the same or similar items.

Claire McCardell dress, 1952

And now for all who are currently enjoying Paris Fashion Week, here’s a little tidbit that should make you smile. It seems that Ms. Snow would pull rank when it came to covering Paris fashion. There are numerous photos showing Snow styling the models with no Vreeland (who once said that the reason she loves clothes is because she was Paris born) in sight. This calls to mind the whole “Devil Wears Prada” storyline in which the assistants fight over who gets to go to the French fashion capital. This may well have been a bone of contention between the two women in an otherwise symbiotic relationship.

Model Mary Jane Russell in front of 18th Century map of Paris
Photo Louise Dahl-Wolfe

For more on Diana Vreeland’s years at Harper’s Bazaar see my review of: Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman .The exhibition was curated by Taylor Elyse Anderson, Laura Donovan, Ilene Hacker and Nancy MacDonell and will be on display until April 2.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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