Born: Frederick, Maryland, 24 May 1905. Education: Attended Hood College, Maryland, 1923-25, and Parsons School of Design, New York and Paris, 1926-29. Family: Married Irving D. Harris, 1943. Career: Fashion model, knitwear designer, Robert Turk, Inc., New York, 1929-31; designer, Townley Frocks, New York, 1931-38; designer, Hattie Carnegie, New York, 1938-40; designer, Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks, New York, 1940-58; children's line, Baby McCardells, introduced, 1956. Exhibitions: Retrospective, Frank Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills, California, 1953; Innovative Contemporary Fashion: Adri and McCardell, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1971; Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell and Rei Kawakubo, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1987. Awards: Mademoiselle Merit award, 1943; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1944, 1958; Neiman Marcus award, 1948; Women's National Press Club award, 1950; Parsons
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Claire McCardell was the founder of American ready-to-wear fashion, and in doing so defined what has become known as the American Look. She created casual but sophisticated clothes with a functional design, which reflected the lifestyles of American women. McCardell's design philosophy was that clothes should be practical, comfortable, and feminine. Capitalizing on the World War II restrictions on the availability of French fashions and fabrics, McCardell designed simple, inexpensive clothes under the label Townley Frocks by Claire McCardell and later Claire McCardell Clothes by Townley.
The first successful silhouette McCardell designed was the Monastic, a dartless, waistless, bias-cut, tent-style dress that could be worn with or without a belt. McCardell had several other successful designs which stayed in her collections, with slight changes, for years. In 1942 McCardell introduced the Popover, a wrap around, unstructured, utilitarian denim dress to be worn over smarter clothes. This garment was made in response to a clothing request by Harper's Bazaar for women whose hired help had left for wartime factory work. The Popover evolved in later collections into dresses, coats, beach wraps, and hostess dresses.
McCardell was known for many other innovations and she experimented with unconventional fabrics for various silhouettes. Her wool jersey bathing suits and cotton-diaper swimsuit are examples of nontraditional fabric use. Madras cotton halter-style full-length hostess gowns were shown for evening. Her design trademarks were
Ever resourceful, McCardell viewed the 1940s wartime restrictions as challenging. Shoes were heavily rationed, so McCardell promoted the ballet slipper as street wear, often covered in coordinating or matching fabrics to her clothing ensembles.
The inspirations for McCardell's designs were many. She relied primarily on her own intuition as a woman, believing that many other women had the same needs for their wardrobes. "Most of my ideas," stated McCardell, "come from trying to solve my own problems." She sought to find solutions by analyzing the various needs of women, concluding that essentially clothes must be functional. While skiing she found her head became quite cold and thus designed winter playclothes with hoods. She also recognized how cars and airplanes had changed the American travel lifestyle dramatically; women needed clothes that would travel well. Accordingly, McCardell designed a six-piece interchangeable and coordinated wardrobe of separates, enabling traveling woman to produce many combinations from just a few garments.
McCardell rarely looked to contemporary French fashion for inspiration, as many other American designers did before and after World War II. She recognized the differing needs of American women from the European couture client and the potential of the larger ready-to-wear market in the United States. In this way she was able to define the American style of casual elegance. Back in 1926 during her sophomore year at Parsons School of Design, McCardell studied in Paris. While there she was able to buy samples from the French couturier Madeleine Vionnet and study the pattern and cut of her garments. Vionnet's influence was evident in McCardell's work; though McCardell did not work in the couture tradition, she was able to create ready-to-wear clothing by simplifying Vionnet's cut. She incorporated the bias cut into her designs, both for aesthetic as well as functional effects. From Vionnet, McCardell said she learned "the way clothes worked, the way they felt."
The beauty of McCardell's clothes lay in the cut which then produced a clean, functional garment. Her clothes accentuated the female form without artificial understructures and padding. Rather than use shoulder pads, McCardell used the cut of the sleeve to enhance the shoulder. Relying on the bias cut, she created fitted bodices and swimsuits which flattered the wearer. Full circle skirts, neatly belted or sashed at the waist without crinolines underneath, a mandatory accessory for the New Look, created the illusion of the wasp waist. McCardell clothes often had adjustable components, such as drawstring necklines and waists, to accommodate many different body types.
Claire McCardell's greatest contribution to fashion history was in creating and defining the American Look. Her inspiration is evident in the work of the many fashion designers who followed her.