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The Women of Harper’s Bazaar, 1936-1958

Start Date 01 March 2016
End Date 02 April 2016
Venue The Museum at FIT
Location New York, USA

The Women of Harper’s Bazaar, 1936–1958 focused on a pivotal time in the history of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. The exhibition explored the dynamic collaboration among Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who reinvigorated Harper’s Bazaar by combining their individual talents.  Drawing from The Museum at FIT’s extensive collection of Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s color photographs — donated by the photographer herself — the exhibition highlighted original photographs shown alongside nine garments by Christian Dior, Charles James, Mainbocher, Claire McCardell, and Carolyn Schnurer that exemplified the vast array of captivating styles featured in Harper’s Bazaar.  

The exhibition opened with an embroidered, elephant-motif top by American designer Carolyn Schnurer. This piece epitomized the designer’s whimsical sportswear, perfectly suited to an American woman’s lifestyle during the era. It was paired with a photograph of the same garment in an inverted color scheme that was featured in the December 1952 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. 

The exhibition continued with sections dedicated to each of the three women, showcasing their individual contributions. Carmel Snow had a forward-thinking attitude and, to quote her niece and successor Nancy White, was a “genius for picking other people of genius.” Diana Vreeland took an imaginative approach to fashion styling, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe explored advancements in color photography and pioneered on-location shooting in destinations such as Egypt and São Paulo. Their talents combined to make Harper’s Bazaar a definitive fashion magazine of the time.   

The impact of the women’s collaborative process was demonstrated through a series of photographs and documents. On display were personal letters between Carmel Snow and model Mary Jane Russell describing a memorable fashion editorial from the Paris collections of 1951. Behind-the-scenes photographs and outtakes documented the famous 1942 Arizona desert photo shoot at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pauson house — styled by Vreeland — during which she stepped in front of the camera after model Bijou Barrington fell ill from heat stroke. 

Video footage from the documentaries Louise Dahl-Wolfe: Painting with Light and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel offered a glimpse into each woman’s personality. Copper-plates and the resulting color proofs reveal the steps of Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s working process.  Additionally, four large scale reproductions of Dahl-Wolfe photographs featured in the magazine were paired with related garments that mimic the fashion seen in the images. 

  • A gray wool jersey swimsuit by Claire McCardell in the designer’s signature style was shown with a photo of a similar design from the May 1946 issue of the magazine. 
  • A 1948 Mainbocher gray wool suit with exquisite scrollwork was paired with a photograph in which the model wears a pith helmet and holds an hourglass, exemplifying what the magazine called “the covert look.” 
  • A 1954 Christian Dior black coat was used to simulate Dior’s famous Mystère coat from his groundbreaking 1947 collection, as it appeared in a Dahl-Wolfe photograph. The similarities between the two garments highlight the lasting impact of the collection that Snow christened “A New Look.” 
  • An evening gown by designer Charles James was juxtaposed with a Louise Dahl-Wolfe photograph that mimics the structural silhouettes of American evening wear represented in the magazine. 

The Women of Harper’s Bazaar, 1936-1958 was the first exhibition to focus on the interaction between these three individuals, highlighting collaboration as an essential component of the creative process. With their brilliant colors, arresting compositions, and faraway locales, the Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographs that comprised the heart of the exhibition conveyed an idea of fashion as a conduit to a more vivid existence.