Fashion designer Claire McCardell designed clothes for real women
McCardell makes a good addition to Anna Jenness Miller, the 19th century dress reform advocate showed up in this space last week. Like Jenness Miller, she didn’t just toe the party line — or sew the party line.
As a writer Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson put it in a 2018 Washington Post Magazine article about the designer: “McCardell’s designs contained a chemistry that so many of us still crave: the ability to command the narrative of our own bodies and to be seen not just as a sight to behold, but as someone to be reckoned with. . »
McCardell was born in 1905 to a stepmother from the South and a bank manager father. She was the eldest of four children, the only daughter. She played with her brothers. The joy that comes from being able to run and move around unhindered must have come to him then, as well as the despair that comes when that freedom is gone.
She wanted to study fashion, but her father insisted that she study home economics at Hood College. After a year, she convinced her parents to let her go to Parsons School of Design in New York. From there she went to Paris, where she bought designer clothes to take apart, studying how they were put together.
And how was it put together? With not enough thought given to how women actually lived. “I don’t like glitter,” McCardell later said. “I like comfort in the rain, comfort in the sun, comfort for active sports, comfort for sitting and looking good. Clothes have to be useful.
In 1938, McCardell was back in New York, working for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks. The origin story of her fame comes from what allegedly happened one day in August of that year in the Townley showroom: she nearly knocked over a shopper from a retail store while crossing the room.
As Evitts Dickinson wrote: “That day McCardell was dressed in a dress she had sewn: a red wool shirt with no padded shoulders or darts, and no sewn-in waist to structure the body into a figure of idealized hourglass.
The buyer found this dress more interesting than anything else in the Townley collection and bought it off McCardell’s back to put into production. Due to its cassock-like simplicity, the robe became known as “monastic”.
It was a ready-to-wear dress that looked good on everyone and could be accessorized with a belt at the waist. In 1942, McCardell unveiled the “popover”, a denim wrap. The New York Times wrote, “Women could do their own chores there while looking stylish.
Other McCardell innovations included blue jean seams, trouser pleats, dividers, and zippers on the sides of skirts. When leather was rationed during the war, she teamed up with Capezio on a line of ballet flats, moving them from the barre to the streets.
Evitts Dickinson wrote: “The 1940s became the decade of the McCardell woman – dressed in casual singlets, wearing wrap dresses or trouser suits with pockets, braless, perhaps, and heelless , and feeling confident in her stylish outfit.”
In 1944, McCardell won the Coty Fashion Award. Two years later, she won the Best Sportswear Designer Award. Her ethos lives on, most recently in an $898 cotton poplin dress from the designer Tory Burch which has “a timeless shape designed to have a modern attitude and movement”.
McCardell died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 52. A few years ago, the Frederick Art Club, founded in 1897 by a group of female artists, art students and art lovers, was looking for a woman to honor. The members of the club wanted to “break the bronze ceiling”, to help correct the scarcity of statues dedicated to women. In a presentation, the Frederick Historical Society made the case for Claire McCardell.
“We were blown away,” said Linda Moran, president of what became the Claire McCardell Project. “We just said, ‘Holy cow, that’s our person.'”
The club commissioned a statue from Sarah Hempel Irani, a Frederick sculptor who took his own deep dive into McCardell’s life. “I make friends with dead people,” Hempel Irani told Answer Man. “I have to spend time with them to get a likeness.”
Hempel Irani does a lot of religious work, including statues of saints. “Every saint has an attribute, something that shows who that saint is,” she said. “It’s a visual language, like a code. When you see the guy with the keys you know it’s Saint Pierre.”
What would be Claire McCardell’s attribute? Hempel Irani played with scissors, before remembering a favorite photo of the designer, posing with fabric arranged on a dress form.
She bought a vintage dress form at an antique store and asked her longtime model, Dakota Lee — “It’s the Virgin Mary in another sculpture” — to play with. “She threw her arm over it and collapsed in a classic fashion pose. I was like, ‘Don’t move! This is amazing.'”
The 7½-foot bronze sculpture was unveiled at the east end of Carroll Creek Park in Frederick on October 17, 2021. Hempel Irani said: “I was wearing a denim dress with pockets, belted at the waist.”