Personally, I identify with Claire McCardell’s ethics and sensibilities more than any other designer I’ve featured so far. Maybe it’s because she’s an American, or maybe because she was irreverently anti-Paris, or maybe it’s because she fought to put pockets in all of her garments despite the cost (so women would have a place to put their hands “so as to not feel ill at ease or vulnerable”). It is commonly thoughts that she was to mass-produced clothing what Coco Chanel was to couture.
In my opinion Claire McCardell should still be a household name, but her clothing is often overlooked because it was designed with a purpose in mind: to be comfortable on the body, to be easily worn and maintained, and most of all, to meet the needs of working, American women.
What McCardell’s designs lacked in flair, drama, and decoration was made up for in functionality, quality, and longevity. When I look at some of her pieces I am astounded by how attractive and relevant they still are. I would probably kill a man for an authentic McCardell.
I like to think about McCardell as the first designer who successfully mass-produced multifunctional and transformable clothing. She believed that garments should be made so that the wearer could adjust and conform them to their own bodies, which I’m all about. Born in 1905, Claire came into her own during the WWII, when fabrics and notions (such as leather, and zippers) were heavily restricted. She had to work within the scarcity, which we all know leads to innovation.
She designed with women in mind, mainly because she designed with herself in mind. She wore items from her own collection and her first successful piece, known as the monastic dress, was a garment that she had made for herself and had been wearing for years.
Take her opinion on closures for example:
“…a woman may live alone and like it, but you may soon come to regret it if you wrench your arm trying to zip a back zipper into place.” For this reason she often avoided back closures, and when she did use them they were easy to access as well as decorative.
Claire was also a pioneer for women’s sportswear and leisurewear, and designed “playsuits,” inspired by children’s wear, and bathing suits that showed off the body’s natural contours. Free of thick padding and ornate details, only the most confident women dared to wear some of McCardell’s innovating bathing suit designs. She insisted that the minimalism she was drawn to served a purpose – to make sure women could actually swim. Again, functionality seems to have been of great importance to her.
I think McCardell had an understanding of fashion and mass-production that really elevated the craft to a new place. The women of the time responded to this. Her first big hits were insanely popular, and retailed for the low price of $6.95 in some instances (one online calculator told me the $7 in Claire’s time is equivalent to about $65 today). Similar to Chanel, she often used fabrics that were thought of as cheap and not suitable for clothing, like cotton calico (although we all know that American slaves had used similar fabrics to make their own clothing centuries before), that had mass appeal. Her pieces were found in the closets of many women: from young working girls, to happy homemakers, to ladies who lunched. Her view of fashion seemed to be an egalitarian one:
“I belong to a mass-production country when any of us, all of us, deserve the right to good fashion and where fashion must be made available to all.”
Love and Enjoy.
The New School University Library allows anyone access to their collection of McCardell’s sketches and fashion renderings. Check it out here.