As a child in Frederick, Maryland, Claire McCardell (1905-1958) enjoyed outdoor activities with her three younger brothers. She also liked learning about fashion, sewing, and garment construction; she created outfits for her paper dolls from fashion magazines, watched the family’s seamstress sew clothes, and dismantled her and her brothers’ garments to see how they were made. From an early age she wanted women’s clothes to be practical as well as pretty.
After attending Hood College for two years, McCardell convinced her father to let her move to New York City and study fashion at the School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons School of Design). Her studies included a year in Paris, and she graduated in 1928. By 1929 she was working for designer Robert Turk, whom she followed to Townley Frocks, and when he died in a boating accident she finished that year’s collection and became head designer for Townley herself.
By the mid-1930s McCardell began introducing practical innovations in women’s fashion, including the interchangeable separates she launched in 1934 to make packing for travel easier, but they were not well-received at the time and caused friction with Henry Geiss, Townley’s owner. In 1938, she had her first big success with the Monastic dress, an unstructured dress with a belt to give it a customizable shape and fit, which came as a stark contrast to the highly tailored, formal garments available from other designers. The dress was hugely popular, in part due to the way it solved ready-to-wear fashion’s problem of fit, but McCardell had not copyrighted the pattern, other manufacturers began making copies, and Townley soon closed due to financial and legal problems.
McCardell worked for Hattie Carnegie briefly at that point but returned to Townley when it reopened in 1940 and remained there until her death. One condition of her return was that she have her name on the label, making her one of the first American designers with that acknowledgement. She also received much more creative control, and Townley now supported her approach to fashion, which combined functionality and comfort with style and became known as the “American look.” This approach served her well during World War Two’s fabric rationing, and women of that era enjoyed dresses like her Popover, which was durable enough for housekeeping and stylish enough for dinner. McCardell’s designs were simple and easy to care for, contained useful features like pockets and side zippers (which women could close themselves), and supported women with more active, independent lifestyles.
In 1943 McCardell married Irving Drought Harris, an architect with two children from a previous marriage. She continued working in fashion, receiving recognition such as the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award (1944) and the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award (1948). She became a partner at Townley in 1952, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1955, and published a book called “What Shall I Wear?” in 1956. McCardell died in 1958, at age 52, of colon cancer, and her family decided not to continue her label. Her designs have been featured in exhibits at several major museums in the decades since, and she influenced many contemporary designers, including Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, and Calvin Klein.
To find Claire McCardell’s book “What Shall I Wear?” at Haggerty Library, click here.