Claire McCardell

(1905 - 1958)


Frederick-born Claire McCardell, the "creator of women's sportswear", "the gal who defied Dior", is widely recognized as the woman who pioneered casual, comfortable American sportswear for women.

Ms. McCardell always knew that she wanted to be a fashion designer. As a child she cut her mother's fashion magazines into paper dolls, creating silhouettes of femininity and function. At sixteen, she entered Hood College in Frederick because her parents insisted that she was too young to go to New York City to study. Later, she transferred to Parsons School of Design in New York, from which she graduated in 1928. She started her career as a fashion designer painting rose buds on windowshades. Despite this inauspicious start, Ms. McCardell became the first designer to use zippers, popularize leotards, wear tweed evening coats and put spaghetti straps on evening gowns.

In an October 1955 article by Betty Friedan for Town Journal, Ms. McCardell said, "You have to design for the lives American women lead today." By the time this article was written, she had been at the top of the fashion industry for twenty years. Before Ms. McCardell appeared on the scene, "fashion" meant cumbersome French couture. Then, after World War II, American women sought versatile, comfortable, practical and affordable apparel. Ms. McCardell answered this desire with clothing that fit into her own active lifestyle as a skier, golfer and traveler. She was the originator of mix-and-match separates, pedal-pushers, bareback summer dresses, strapless swimsuits, and feminine denim fashion. Her distaste for high heels and preference for wearing ballet slippers, made slippers all the rage during the 40's and 50's.  Her 1938 signature dress design, the "Monastic", had large patch pockets, loose sleeves and a loose-fitting dress cut straight from the shoulder to the hem and gathered at the waist with a belt or sash, is till popular today. In 1942, she introduced the wrap around "Popover" dress, which could be used as a dressing gown, a swimsuit cover-up, a housedress, or a party dress. Her tie-together "diaper" bathing suit anticipated the daring beach wear styles of the 1980's by several decades.

A genius in her own time, Ms. McCardells creations are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution and the Fashion Institute in New York as examples of the "American look" in women's fashion. Among the many awards she received in recognition for her contributions to women's wear, Ms. McCardell won the Coty award in 1943 and 1956, and the first American Sportswear Designers Award presented by Sports Illustrated magazine.

Claire McCardell built a legacy of "All-American" fashion that endures today, over thirty years after her death. 


© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2001