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Practical Design for the Modern Woman: Unveiling Frederick’s Tribute to Claire McCardell

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Say the name Claire McCardell to most folks and you’re likely to get a quizzical expression, but if you say that name to the right person—a vintage hound, an experienced sewist, or a lover of fashion history—you are more likely to see eyes widen and some strong, usually positive, feelings. I am among those who love to talk McCardell. I’m not sure when I learned about the 20th-century designer in my path as a fashion scholar, but once I learned about her design ethos—comfort, practicality, and adaptability—I was hooked. 

McCardell is having a bit of a moment in her home state and beyond. About two years ago, the Frederick Art Club began a campaign to honor McCardell with a statue in the city she was born and raised in. That monument was recently unveiled in Carroll Creek Park on October 17. Before the pandemic, visitors to the Maryland Center of History and Culture in Baltimore’s exhibition Spectrum of Fashion (which closed in March 2021) saw several of the garments from that museum’s collection which includes more than 30 garments by the designer. Along with a significant collection of papers from her personal and professional archive in the MCHC Library donated by the McCardell family, this is one of the most significant collections charting McCardell’s life and work.

The museum will open an exhibition on McCardell in October 2022, the first show to focus on the designer since a 1998 exhibition, Claire McCardell and the American Look, at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. This will be the inaugural exhibition in the Claire McCardell Gallery, which will now play host to a rotating series of fashion exhibitions highlighting the museum’s spectacular collection. Designer Tory Birch, who drew on the McCardell archive at MCHC for her most recent collection, has sponsored the new Tory Burch Claire McCardell Fashion Fellowship at the museum which aims to foster study of the collection.

 

It’s no surprise that McCardell is popping up all over. Her design ethos of practical and comfortable clothes that respond to the wearer’s needs is as relevant as ever. The Frederick Art Club, founded in 1897 by a group of women artists, has framed their project to celebrate McCardell as part of a nationwide effort to, in the words of president Marilyn Bagel, “break the bronze ceiling.”

In terms of public sculpture, we’ve got plenty of allegorical women in the US, like Lady Liberty, but when it comes to celebrating the accomplishments of real women, they number only about 7 percent of public statues. The installation in Carroll Creek Park includes not only a stunning larger-than-life bronze sculpture of McCardell casually leaning on a dressmaker’s dummy by local artist Sarah Hempel Irani, but also a garden designed by Sharon Poole, inspired by the plaids McCardell loved to use, and interpretive signage designed by Irene Kiriloff. At the unveiling, speakers highlighted the uniqueness of this team of women who brought the project to fruition: both the artists and designers as well as those doing the fundraising. 

At a moment when many are engaged in conversations about how we construct our public history, both in schools and in public space, it’s fascinating to see what new figures take on this monumental role. A fashion designer might not seem a likely choice in Frederick, and yet as I looked around at the crowd gathered in Carroll Creek Park for the statue’s unveiling, I could see her influence everywhere.

While only one or two people appeared to be wearing fashion knowingly inspired by the designer, I saw a number of styles that McCardell helped to popularize: trousers for women, leggings, ballet flats, and hoodies, to name just a few. As Bagel noted in her speech, Claire McCardell “changed the way women dressed.” The sculpture notably stands across the creek from the former Union Knitting Mills, a factory producing stockings and hose from 1880s until it closed in 1959. DuPont worked with the mill to test its newly invented material nylon in 1937, and the factory would be the first to manufacture nylon stockings, another revolution in women’s fashion. 

Irani’s bronze McCardell wears signature garments associated with the designer: a dirndl skirt with patch pockets and loosely tailored button-down top with a popped collar, accessorized with a slim belt, double strand of pearls, bangle bracelets, and ballet flats. The ensemble highlights some of the major contributions McCardell made to the development of a distinctly American way of dressing for women which focused on what was then called sportswear. While sportswear in the classic sense, for playing tennis or golf and lounging at the beach, had already been available as separate pieces, McCardell helped to move this idea into everyday dressing for women. She created pieces that could be mixed and matched, folded into a suitcase, and would look great when unpacked, eliminating the need for cumbersome trunks for travel and helping to push women’s fashion in a more casual direction. McCardell always insisted on practical pockets in her clothes, a detail that anyone buying women’s wear can tell you is still vanishingly rare. Irani also captured subtle details, such as topstitching and rolled cuffs used as decorative details. 

McCardell favored practical embellishments rather than those that were added on and focused more attention on the beauty of the fabrics she chose. Visible hooks and eyes or buttons provided visual interest and topstitching could enhance the lines of a garment. McCardell also ensured that closures were in easy reach so women could dress themselves. In this way, McCardell was very much aligned with the Modernist movement in design that we now call mid-century modern. She created simple clothing that responded to the needs of modern life. She approached fashion from a problem-solving point of view. Curator Bernard Rudofsky of The Museum of Modern Art even deigned to include her among the very few contemporary designers represented in the 1947 exhibition Are Clothes Modern? Rudofsky answered the question with an emphatic “No!” in relation to most European and American designs, which he viewed as irrational, but he celebrated the logic and geometry of McCardell’s draping, as well as her mindful usage of materials. 

 

Page featuring designs by McCardell from Bernard Rudofsky, Are clothes modern? An essay on contemporary apparel (Chicago: Paul Theobold, 1947) 201
Woman's white dress with white lace bodice and short sleeves. Waffle piqué cotton on skirt, 1950-55 Worn by the donor, Mrs. Adrian McCardell, sister-in-law to the designer Claire McCardell. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Adrian McCardell. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture

Early in her career in the 1930s, McCardell nearly bankrupted Townley Frocks, for whom she designed, by refusing to pay attention to what was happening in Paris, then the center of the fashionable world. McCardell trusted her gut about what women needed in fashion. She used practical solutions to address one of the main challenges of designing ready-to-wear fashions, that is fit.

Her first big success from this time, the “monastic dress,” is a case-in-point: a simple A-line dress cut on the bias, using a belt to give it shape. One dress manufacturer is said to have exclaimed, “drop everything! There’s a girl up the street making a dress with no back, no front, no waistline, and my God, no bust darts!” Whether this was actually said, the sentiment tells you how different her designs were. At a time when Elsa Schiaparelli, known as a dress carpenter, was showing suits with sharp shoulders and embellished with lavish embroidery and novelty buttons in all sorts of shapes, McCardell’s look was downright stark, hence the name monastic. 

 

Left: 1938 Butterick Pattern for suits similar to those shown by Elsa Schiaparelli; Right: Best & Co. ad for McCardell’s Monastic Dress, New York Times, October 19, 1938
Left: Erwin Blumenfeld, Portrait of Claire McCardell behind glass, 1945. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture; Right: Todd Webb, Georgia O’Keeffe in Front of Abiquiu House Salita Door, 1956

The dress epitomized McCardell’s approach to fashion, it was conformable and customizable. McCardell had first learned these lessons in Frederick from Annie Koogle, a dressmaker who worked for her family. From Koogle she learned how the garments she saw in Vogue could be tailored to suit different bodies and how older garments could be adapted to changing styles. McCardell’s designs worked well because they were not closely tailored to the body, but rather allowed for adjustments, often from statement belts or her favorite spaghetti strap ties. This created greater ease for a customer buying something off the rack and made for a garment with staying power in a wardrobe. The monastic dress was knocked-off by so many other design houses that Townley was nearly put out of business by the legal battles. 

 

Left: Herbert Matter, Portrait of Claire McCardell with metal triangles, c. 1940. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture; Right: Green cotton wrap-tie halter dress made by Townley Clothes and designed by Claire McCardell, c. 1950. Gift of Mrs. Francis J. Conley. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture

McCardell’s dedication to practical and emphatically American fashion was only a little ahead of its time in the 1930s. By the time World War II hit, her approach to design was perfectly suited to the restraints of wartime rationing and the new realities of women’s lives. For instance, she embraced the practicality of leotards and bodysuits, as well as “ballet britches,” which we would today call leggings, and worked with Capezio to produce ballet shoes to go with her garments since dance shoes weren’t rationed. She later said she had intended them more for wear at home, but women took them to the streets. Most wearers of these ubiquitous shoes today have no idea that McCardell helped to popularize them. 

In 1942, at the request of Diana Vreeland (then fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar) she designed the “pop-over dress” for housewives now responsible for more household work with domestic workers leaving for better jobs in factories and other war work. McCardell based her denim wrap dress on the Hooverette or bungalow apron, a popular style of housedress since at least the 1910s. With huge patch pockets and attached potholder, the style was an immediate success, introducing both a fashionable reimagining of a housedress as well as sturdy denim as a fashion fabric for women. McCardell and Townley had been smart enough to patent this style, a rarity for fashion, to prevent the piracy that happened with the monastic dress. The 1942 Pop-over sold for $6.95, $121.43 in today’s money. That might seem a lot compared with today’s fast fashion, but that was an affordable price at the time for a durable and beautifully made garment, that also adhered to rationing restrictions. Its popularity suggests that it was surely worn by women who had never had domestic help, even before the war. 

 

Left: Claire McCardell Popover dress in green plaid cotton, 1950s. Gift on Nancy Ackler. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture; Right: Hutzler’s Advertisement for 1957 'Popover' dress, 1957. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture

While the style had emerged from the necessities of rationing and war work, McCardell reimagined it time after time, as in this green, black, and grey plaid version from the 1950s in the Collection of the MCHC, or in a 1957 version with a movable belt available from Hutzler’s Department store in Baltimore or Towson. 

McCardell’s reuse of certain signature styles year after year also set her apart from most other fashion designers. Like the pop-over, the monastic dress also remained a mainstay for McCardell. A sleeveless version was even in the wardrobe of iconic Modernist artist Georgia O’Keeffe in dark grey with McCardell’s favorite topstitching embellishment and pockets. O’Keeffe called McCardell “the best woman designer we’ve ever had.” She liked the dress so much she had a copy made in blue silk, though her ballet flats were by Ferragamo not Capezio. You can see McCardell herself in a dress with similar topstitching in Erwin Blumenfeld’s photographs of her “futuristic dress” for Vogue in 1945. 

By 1956, on the occasion of awarding the first Sports Illustrated Sportswear Design Awards to McCardell and young designer Rudi Gernreich (another American original who deserves more recognition), writer Jo Ahern called McCardell a “prophet… As a pioneer, clairvoyant Claire had the subconscious desires of American women cased to perfection.” Indeed, McCardell’s own desire for more comfort and practicality mirrored that of American women everywhere. She helped to popularize and make fashionable so many garments that are now essential in women’s wardrobes which were on full view during the statue’s unveiling. She frequently added hoods to garments, designed jumpsuits for women in the war years, advocated for T-shirts worn both casually and formally, and features rompers as what she called play clothes. McCardell said, “clothes ought to be useful and comfortable. I’ve always wondered why women’s clothes had to be delicate—why they couldn’t be practical and sturdy as well as feminine.” 

 

Left: Claire McCardell in sunglasses and a turtleneck, 1957. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture; Right: Page from Life, June 7, 1948 showing ensembles styled by Claire McCardell with a black and white striped Jantzen T-shirt

While perhaps no one in the audience for the statue unveiling was wearing a McCardell original, most of us were wearing something inspired by her life’s work. These were clothes suited not only to women living in the ever-expanding suburbs of mid-century America but also to working women, women like McCardell herself. McCardell’s career was cut tragically short by her death in 1958 of cancer at age 52. Unlike other designers, her line was not carried on by another, and so her name seemed to fade from popular culture, but those in the know always remembered her legacy. 

The statue of McCardell in Frederick might on the surface seem to tell the story of one white woman, born to a privileged family, who made her mark in New York fashion, but it’s also possible to think about this statue as signifying something broader. The garments that McCardell designed reflected shifts and changes that were happening in women’s lives more broadly across her career. Women moved into the workplace in larger numbers, and casual ways of living and entertaining became a bigger part of everyday life. She made clothing for middle-class women, the kind of woman who shopped at Hutzler’s in downtown Baltimore. Her clothes encouraged women to move and breathe, to stuff their pockets full of the things they needed for the day rather than be burdened by a handbag. Her style reflected the emergence of a particularly American way of dressing that had nothing to do with the dictates of French style and much more to do with comfort and durability. We are still living with her legacy. 

There are so many more stories to tell about female-identifying people throughout history, and so many histories neglected and erased, but it is exciting to see the beginnings of new figures celebrated on this kind of stage. 

 

Statue photos by the author

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