Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Claire McCardell (1905-1958)
MSA SC 3520-13581

Biography:

Claire McCardell was born on May 24, 1905, in historic Frederick, Maryland.1  Her mother, Eleanor, was a “Southern belle” who appreciated fashion and good taste and kept a picture of Robert E. Lee on a wall in her living room.  Adrian Leroy McCardell, Claire’s father, was extremely involved in the Frederick community as an Evangelical and Reformed Church elder and Sunday school superintendent, a 33rd-degree Mason, a Maryland state senator, a member of the State Tax Commission, and, like his own father, was president of the Frederick County National Bank.2  Claire was the oldest of four children, as well as the only girl, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to her “tomboyish tendencies and her lifelong love of sports.”3  Growing up, Claire earned the nickname “Kick” because of the way in which she kept her younger brothers from pushing her around.4

Even as a young girl, Claire showed an aptitude and passion for fashion.  Twice a year when the family seamstress, Miss Annie Koogle, would visit to sew clothes for the McCardell family, Claire followed her around, fascinated by the making of clothing.  Claire’s brother, Bob, recalled how, “Claire would hang around and watch as much as she could.  She knew what she wanted to do from the time she was a child.”5  Although the young Claire never excelled at school, her flair for clothes was apparent.  When playing with friends she would often cut her own paper dolls from magazines, designing their outfits herself; a talent that led her to begin making her own clothes when she was a teenager.6  A second brother, Adrian, remembered how Claire was always challenging traditional fashion standards, even at a young age.  On one occasion she put on a “flashy hat” for church and her family quailed: “We all said that we wouldn’t go to church with her in that.  She went upstairs and changed.  But people were always interested in what she would wear to church.”7

Eventually, McCardell decided that she wanted to move to New York City to pursue a career in the fashion industry.  However, since she was only 16 at the time, Claire’s father insisted that she was too young and offered nearby Hood College and their home economics program as a compromise.  After two years of poor grades, however, Claire finally swayed her father and moved to New York, enrolling in the Parsons School of Design when she was 18.8  In 1927, McCardell went to Paris, “what was then the source of all fashion” and continued her studies at the Parsons branch school at the Place des Vosges.9  While in Paris, Claire worked part-time tracing fashion sketches and learned, in her own words, “the way clothes worked, the way they felt, where they fastened.”10  McCardell and her classmates would often comb Parisian flea markets, looking for castoff couture clothing, which they would then take home and unstitch to see exactly how the garments were created.11

After graduating from Parsons, McCardell’s career got off to a slow start.  She first found employment painting rosebuds on lampshades, followed by a short stint at modeling for B. Altman’s.  Claire then held a series of industry-related jobs from operating sewing machines, to sketching at a fashionable dress shop, and designing at a knit-goods company.  McCardell was fired from this last job after just 8 months because her employers felt that she lacked experience.12

Late in the year of 1930, Claire McCardell began working as an assistant designer for Robert Turk, a relationship that would eventually launch her own career.  In 1932, when Turk’s business was disbanded, McCardell moved with him to Townley Frocks, Inc.  Shortly after the move to Townley and just a month before the spring showing in 1931, Turk tragically drowned while swimming, forcing Claire to finish the collection.13  McCardell recalled how she dealt with the opportunistic crisis: “I did what everybody else did in those days – copied Paris.  The collection wasn’t great, but it sold.”14  This success encouraged Claire to experiment, however, her entrance into the fashion world was still too recent and the fashion industry was simply not ready for her revolution of casual wear and sportswear.15

In 1938, Claire McCardell introduced the “Monastic Dress” which effectively launched her career and, according to Time Magazine, “gave American fashion a new flexibility it has never lost.”16  “Loose-hanging and cut on the bias,” the dress did not gain much notice at first.  Eventually, however, a buyer from Manhattan’s Best and Company ordered 100 Monastic dresses and ran a full page advertisement on the dress.  The dress quickly sold out and cheap imitations began flooding the market.  Claire McCardell’s dress was a hit.17

Henry H. Geiss, who worked with McCardell at Townley Frocks, and who Time described as “a harassed veteran of Seventh Avenue’s fashion campaigns,” noted the effect of the Monastic dress as revolutionizing the entire dress industry.18  Yet despite the dress’ success, Geiss and Townley Frocks thought that the dress would be too over-copied to be included in the winter line, so McCardell moved briefly to Hattie Carnegie in 1939.  However, the upscale design company felt that McCardell’s designs were “too simple for the rich tastes of the Carnegie carriage trade” so McCardell returned to Townley in 1940, where she continued to work until her death.19

After returning to Townley in 1940, Claire McCardell began to come of age as a designer and successfully express her own unique design ideas.  Despite her stay in Paris as a fashion student, McCardell broke away from Parisian style standards and refused to visit French fashion collections, stating “I don’t want French influences confusing me.”20  Accordingly, McCardell ushered in a new era of fashion, later called the “American Look” or the “New Look,” which stressed the practicality, usefulness, comfort and femininity of women’s fashion.21  Claire removed shoulder pads from her own clothing and never incorporated them into her own designs, finding them “stiff, uncomfortable and unfeminine.”22

Most of McCardell’s designs came out of necessity and her own personal needs from clothing.  In one of her shows in 1942 Claire was unable to obtain traditional showroom shoes for her models due to rationing from World War II.  As an alternative, she put her models in ballet flats, sparking a trend that continues to be hugely popular even today.23  McCardell often simply created clothes for herself and once remarked that, “It just turns out that other people needed them, too.”24  She often described her approach to clothing as functional and free of fuss, stating: “I do not like glitter.  I like comfort in the rain, in the sun, comfort for active sports, comfort for sitting still and looking pretty.  Clothes should be useful.”25

In 1943, at the age of 37, Claire McCardell took a break from her professional career to focus on her personal life, marrying Texas architect Irving Drought Harris, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore.26  Harris had two children from a previous marriage, and although McCardell helped raise them, her growing career and her husband’s disapproval put a strain on the family relationship.  Claire’s brother Bob described McCardell’s marriage and her relationship with Harris: “He never approved of her career.  He would have been very happy if she gave that up. …But she had made a name for herself.  And she was intent on having her career.  It was her first love.”27

McCardell’s popularity no doubt stemmed from the fact that her designs were simple and therefore flattered a variety of body types.  Affordable and practical, yet sometimes high-priced, her dresses were advertised in a 1955 Time Magazine article as: "dresses that are as at home in the front seat of a station wagon as in the back seat of a Rolls, as comfortable in the vestibule of a motel as in the lobby of the Waldorf, as fitting for work in the office as for cocktails and dinner with the boss."28

One of Claire McCardell’s biggest contributions to the world of fashion was mix and match separates.  After a vacation in Europe, McCardell decided that she was tired of carrying a trunk and five suitcases with her when she traveled, so she began designing dresses in parts that could be switched around to create a variety of looks and outfits, which became, in the words of Time, “one of the world’s most important experiments with ‘separates,’ now a mainstay of American sportswear design.”29

Part of Claire McCardell’s success was due to the fact that she was able to work with a variety of materials, even under the strict rationing of World War II.  Whereas many designers struggled with the loss of French fashion guidance and the unavailability of traditional fabrics and materials, McCardell purposely cut out French influence and took advantage of the wartime situation.  McCardell already worked with fabrics many designers considered too basic, such as denim, calico and wool jersey, but managed to incorporate new fabrics as well.  For example, when the government announced a surplus of weather balloon cottons in 1944, McCardell quickly bought them up, designing clothes that patriotic American women wore with pride.30  Similarly, one of McCardell’s most popular creations, the “popover” dress, was created for the wartime housewife who was forced for the first time to do her own housework.  The simple garment was designed to be functional for cleaning and yet fashionable enough for casual entertaining.31  The New York Times described the “popover” as allowing women to “do their housework in it and still look smart.”32

After World War II, Claire McCardell continued to branch out in the fashion industry, working as a volunteer critic at the Parsons School of Design, as well as joining an advisory panel for Time, designing a new magazine that would become Sports Illustrated.33  Her most lasting impression, however, would continue to be in design.

McCardell’s innovations, or “McCardellisms” as she called them, continued far beyond the war years and included such unique creations as metal closures, double rows of topstitching, spaghetti-string ties and sashes and even “menswear touches.”34  In fact, “McCardellisms” were so successful and popular that Claire McCardell was able to insist on having her name placed on the label, a distinction that few designers were allowed at that time.  Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Historic Costume Collection at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City noted that in McCardell's time, “You had the name of the store or manufacturer.  The designer was someone kept in the back room. …But she wanted the credit.  It wasn’t an ego trip.  It was just acknowledgment of her work.”35

Unfortunately, Claire McCardell’s life and work were cut short by a diagnosis of terminal colon cancer in 1957.  Many believed that she was just then reaching the height of her career, and yet, despite the prognosis, the designer worked feverishly to complete her final collection.  With the help of long-time friend and classmate, Mildred Orrick, McCardell completed her final collection from her hospital bed, getting up to alter the sketches when they were not to her liking.36  One of her brothers, Adrian, recalled how, “In spite of her impending death, anything coming out in her name she wanted to make sure was hers.”37  On the day of the show, Claire checked herself out of the hospital to personally introduce the collection.  Many fashion followers realized this would be her final showing and crowded New York City’s Pierre Hotel for the show, giving her a standing ovation at its conclusion.38

On March 22, 1958, at the age of 52, Claire McCardell passed away.  The letters of condolence from designers, department store owners, fashion journalists and other fans filled a scrapbook.  Claire McCardell was buried in historic Frederick, near her childhood home, and continues to leave a lasting presence in the fashion industry.39

McCardell received many awards throughout her lifetime, beginning in 1943 with the Mademoiselle Merit Award, followed in 1944 by the Coty American Fashion Critics Award.  In 1946, McCardell won the Best Sportswear Designer Award, and in 1948 she was given the distinction of the Neiman-Marcus Award.  In 1950, McCardell received the Women’s National Press Club Award, which was presented by President Harry S. Truman.40  Posthumously, Claire McCardell was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991.  In 1954, McCardell established the Claire McCardell Gold Thimble Award, which went to an outstanding student at the Parsons School and in 1956 Claire McCardell published a book titled What Shall I Wear?  The What, Where, When and How Much of Fashion.41

In addition to these achievements, Claire McCardell contributed many “firsts” to the world of American fashion.  Her revolutionary 1938 Monastic dress was certainly one such revolutionary innovation, as was her use of blue-jean stitching and trouser pleats and pockets in women’s clothing.42  Like the Monastic dress, the “popover” in 1942, a “wrap-around coverall in denim,” sold more than 75,000 copies in the first season alone and McCardell included variations of the popover in every succeeding collection.43  McCardell also modernized the dirndl skirt, a traditional German full skirt gathered at the waist, in 1938 and although it was not popular at first, variations of the dirndl skirt remain a popular clothing staple even today.  She was also the first to incorporate the “riveted look” using “work-clothes grippers for fasteners and ornamentation.”44

Many notable and well-known figures have praised Claire McCardell throughout the second half of the 20th century.  In 1955, Babs Simpson of Vogue described the effect of McCardell, saying that, “Claire started the feeling for Americana.”45  Similarly, Diana Vreeland of Harper’s Bazaar claimed in 1955 that McCardell, “gave the American woman a look of her own, and she did so without outside pressures.”46  Dallas Retailer Stanley Marcus commented that Claire McCardell was “the master of the line, never slave to the sequin.  She is one of the few creative designers this country has ever produced.”47

The world of American fashion is obviously much more of an industry today than it was during Claire McCardell’s lifetime, and in the ever-changing world of fashionable clothing, classic designers like McCardell can easily be overlooked.  Yet “McCardellisms” continue to pepper modern designs and grace the shelves of department stores.  McCardell’s importance, however, stems not only from her lasting impression on the world of fashion, but also from the extent to which she helped create a distinct “American Look.”  McCardell gave American women a look that set them apart from the traditional Parisian influences and helped make the everyday, such as homemaker chores, fashionable and stylish.  At the same time, her designs encouraged American women to wear clothes that flattered their individual bodies and were comfortable, not restrictive, therefore ushering in a new approach to American fashion and women’s clothing.
 

Endnotes:
1. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead," The New York Times, 23 March 1958, 1.

2. "The American Look," Time Magazine, 2 May 1955, 88.

3. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead."

4. Mary Corey, "Thoroughly Modern McCardell," The Baltimore Sun, 4 October 1998.

5. Mary Corey.

6. "The American Look," 88.

7. Mary Corey.

8. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead;" Mary Corey.

9. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead."

10. "The American Look," 88.

11. "Claire McCardell and the American Look," The Baltimore Sun, 7 August 1999.

12. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead;" "The American Look," 88.

13. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead;" "The American Look," 88.

14. "The American Look," 88.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 90.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead."

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. "Claire McCardell and the American Look."

27. Mary Corey.

28. "The American Look," 86.

29. Ibid.

30. Mary Corey.

31. "The American Look," 90.

32. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead."

33. "Claire McCardell and the American Look."

34. Mary Corey.

35. Ibid.

36. "Claire McCardell and the American Look."

37. Mary Corey.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. "Claire McCardell, Designer, Is Dead."

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. "The American Look," 86.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

Return to Claire McCardell's Introductory Page

Biography written by 2006 summer intern Amy Huggins.


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