scroll down

Mar 27, 2017

Reimagine Fashion: Claire McCardell Changed Fashion For Every Woman

An American Girl, Claire McCardell by Amelia Fleetwood

While impossible for we consumers to imagine, there were actually days, albeit dark ones, when affordable and accessible fashion was not available to the masses. (Shock Horror!) Choices were limited to dowdy work clothes at one end, and high fashion, expensive dresses at the other, brought to women by the established, elitist fashion houses of Europe. Thankfully, things have changed a lot since then. Today, we owe all of our cheap and cheerful shopping sprees to places like H&M, JustFab, Zara and Forever 21 to one very special lady…

Luminary clothing designer Claire McCardell (1905–1958), was known for paring function and affordability with style. She began her studies at Parsons in New York City and completed her education with a stint in Paris. As early as the 1930’s, when working for Townley Frocks, McCardell championed the then revolutionary idea of comfort and practicality, while also embracing the newly-emerging, independent, athletic American woman. She searched for inspiration in art and street fashion rather than copycatting the dominant Parisian high end trends, and was responsible for creating the first ‘All- American’ sportswear look.

McCardell believed in the concept of affordable clothes for every day life.

She was once quoted in an article for Time Magazine, “I’ve always designed things I needed myself. It just turns out that other
people need them too.” Her clothes were functional and simple, with clean lines. She embraced her tom boy aesthetic by her use of details from men’s work clothing, like large pockets, denim fabric, blue-jean topstitching, metal rivets and trouser pleats. But her clothes retained their feminine ‘curb appeal’ by accentuating the waist, and using spaghetti string ties and sashes.

The most important idea pioneered by McCardell was her invention of separates, a new and revolutionary way to creatively serve both practicality and economics. Never before had a woman been able to make nine outfits from five pieces of clothing, including a taffeta skirt, a jersey top, and a jersey jacket. McCardell was famous for her cotton “Kitchen Dinner Dress,” with its full skirt and an attached apron. Her other infamous piece, the “Popover Dress,” sold by the thousands. This dress was especially engineered for a woman to go from housework, or office work straight to a cocktail party without skipping a beat!

McCardell thrived during wartime rationing, when luxe materials were scarce and American designers became cut off from European influence.

The ever-practical McCardell was already working with easily available fabrics like denim, calico and wool jersey. She even popularized the ballet flat as a response to the shortage of leather.

One of the first women to receive name recognition on the labels of her
designs, which read, “Claire McCardell Clothes by Townley,” it’s
surprising that today she isn’t better known. But now you know. So next time you are shopping for inexpensive, trendy ready to wear, tip your hat to the woman who made it all possible, Claire McCardell.