Born: Carolyn Goldsand in New York City, 5 January 1908. Education: Studied at the New York Training School for Teachers; received B.S. from New York University, 1941; studied fashion at the Traphagen School of Design, New York, 1939-40. Family: Married Harold Teller (Burt) Schnurer, 1930 (divorced, late 1950s); children: Anthony. Career: Taught music and art before turning to sportwear design, 1940; clothes originally manufactured by Burt Schnurer Cabana Co., sold only at Best and Co., New York; company renamed for Carolyn Schnurer, 1946; left fashion design, became textile consultant to J.P. Stevens Company, circa 1956. Awards: New Orleans Fashion Group award, 1950.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
Steele, Valerie, Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers, New York, 1991.
"Southern Resort Fashions," in Life (New York), 14 January 1946.
"Women Designers Set New Fashions," in Life, 14 January 1946.
Carlyle, Cora, "Carolyn Schnurer's Flight to Japan," in American Fabrics, No. 20, Winter 1951-52.
——, "Carolyn Schnurer's African Trip," in American Fabrics, No. 24, Winter 1952-53.
"From Natives to Natives," in Time, 11 January 1954.
"Carolyn Schnurer," in Current Biography, March 1955.
Carolyn Schnurer was a rather late bloomer in the field of fashion design. After teaching for a time in the state school system, she attended the Traphagen School of Design in New York and began working for her husband's bathing suit company, Burt Schnurer, Inc., in 1940. Her timing was perfect. As one of a handful of American designers whose creativity filled the vacuum left by the war-enforced absence of European fashion, Schnurer capitalized on her Traphagen training in methods of adaptive design. She became so well known for her casual clothes that in 1946 the company name was changed to Carolyn Schnurer, Inc.
Schnurer was a product of a persistent theme in American design between the World Wars: the need for freedom from the dictates of Europe. To this end, fabric and garment designers were encouraged to do original research in museum collections. Schnurer embraced the practice, picking a country on which to base a collection and then examining relevant objects at the Brooklyn Museum or Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
She enjoyed an advantage over her predecessors in that as air travel became more common, the countries she studied became readily accessible. In 1944 she made her first trip, to the Andes Mountains, returning with the theme for her Serrano collection, and her first enormous success, the Cholo coat. So strongly did she become associated with the idea of foreign inspiration that it overshadowed the real diversity in her work.
One of Schnurer's biggest boosters was American Fabrics magazine, founded in 1946. Its editors denounced what they perceived as a fundamental lack—and fear—of originality within most of the North American textile industry. Praise and publicity were lavished upon the few innovators. Each issue included a survey of some textile or decorative arts tradition, to educate and inspire subscribers. Schnurer's methods were in accord with the American Fabrics editorial policy, and her trips abroad, together with the designs they inspired, received substantial coverage.
Schnurer's career travel included visits to Brittany and Normandy, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, India, Japan, South Africa, Turkey, and Norway. Many of these were sponsored by stores such as Peck & Peck or Franklin Simon, with some secondary support coming from textile companies who then produced Schnurer's designs. She differed from some of her contemporaries in how she made use of the references she chose for garments. Schnurer preferred to graft an element or two of an ethnic style onto an otherwise Western silhouette. The Japanese-inspired collection, for instance, featured kimono sleeves, padded hems or wide, obi -like sashes on conventional full skirted dresses, pagoda-shaped shoulder and hem details on a bathing suit, beach coat, and shorts, and necklines which left the nape bare in virtually every outfit. The African collection of a year later showed cropped jackets with Hausa style embroidery and dress-bodices styled along the lines of tops worn by native women.
The African-inspired work, however, depended much more on the fabrics she derived from native sources than on the shapes of native costume. Earlier, Schnurer had originated a wrinkle-resistant cotton tweed as a result of the trip to Ireland. Dan River, Fuller, Bates, Arthur Beir, and Hollander were among the companies she worked with to develop textiles based on the motifs which filled her travel notebooks. A love of texture was apparent in all her fabric choices. Print designs came from Japanese ink paintings, African wood carvings, and Islamic architecture. A knotted-fiber rain cloak from Japan and an African mud cloth were translated into all-over embroidery patterns. Supple fibers such as linen, cotton, cashmere, and alpaca, as well as fabrics with character, including glazed chintz, sueded jersey, or velvet, distinguished her work. Schnurer's most creative fabric designs and developments adapted the look of the original into a form better suited to the American environment and lifestyle.
It is not surprising that when Schnurer left fashion design after her divorce in the late 1950s, she spent some time as a consultant with the J.P. Stevens textile company. Although she had a relatively short career in fashion, Schnurer left a considerable legacy. With others of her generation who gained prominence in the 1940s, she gave credibility to American design, even at the level of "popular" pricing. Her casual wear enhanced the leisure time of the average woman, while the fabrics and styles she introduced opened the minds of both consumers and those in the industry to the variety awaiting them outside the borders of the nation.