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McCardell, Claire (1905–1958)

McCardell, Claire (1905–1958)

One of the foremost American sportswear designers of the mid-20th century . Born on May 24, 1905, in Frederick, Maryland; died of cancer on March 22, 1958, in New York City; daughter of Adrian Leroy McCardell (a banker and politician) and Frances (Clingan) McCardell; degree from New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, 1928; married Irving Harris (an architect), in 1943; children: two stepchildren.

Moved to New York City (1925); traveled to Paris (1927); hired at Townley Frocks (1930); became chief designer (1931); created designs for Hattie Carnegie's Workshop Originals line (1938–40); returned to Townley Frocks (1940); received Coty Award from the American Fashion Critics Association (1944); became partner at Townley Frocks (1952).

Designer Claire McCardell helped push American fashion toward its own singular, individualistic style. Before the 1930s, when her designs first won acclaim, affluent American women could choose either clothing made by, and purchased from, Parisian couture houses or American-made items that were copies of the French designs. McCardell felt that her customers led a different lifestyle than did European women; they were more physically active and had far less time for the care and maintenance of impractical fabrics. Her designs, which made her a household name by the 1940s, were practical yet stylish and helped define what came to be called the "American Look." In her own words, her style embodied "America—it looks and feels like America. It's freedom, it's democracy, it's casualness, it's good health. Clothes can say all that."

Claire McCardell was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1905, the first of Adrian and Frances McCardell 's four children. Her father was a bank president in Frederick, and would be elected to the state legislature as well as serve as an elder in the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Her mother hailed from Mississippi, and reportedly McCardell grew up in a home where a portrait of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was enshrined on a parlor wall. She developed an interest in dressmaking from an early age, and was sewing her own clothes by the time she graduated from Frederick's Girls High School in 1922. She then spent two years at Hood College in her hometown but, after dismal grades, was able to convince her father to fund an education in New York and Paris at the School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design). McCardell soon became acquainted with the work of the best-known European couture houses, and like other fledgling designers of the era would purchase sample dresses after the Paris showings and take them apart to study how they were made. She was particularly intrigued by the work of Madeleine Vionnet , renowned as the inventor of the bias cut.

After earning her degree in 1928, McCardell had a difficult time finding a job with a design house, and worked as a model, sketcher, and even lampshade painter in New York City. A designer named Robert Turk hired her in 1929, and when Townley Frocks hired him as its chief designer a year later, he brought McCardell with him. Turk died in 1932, and McCardell took over her mentor's duties at the company. She would remain with Townley until her death, with the exception of two years spent working for designer Hattie Carnegie . In a major break with European-inspired fashion, McCardell created at Townley a line of "separates" that could be worn in various combinations for varying occasions. The concept did not initially win a huge following, but, several decades later, separates had become the backbone of most designers' ready-to-wear collections. Another famous design of McCardell's was her caftan, called the "Monastic," which was inspired in part by Moroccan garb.

World War II brought an enforced break with French fashion, creating a pocket of opportunity for American houses, while wartime shortages necessitated design innovations. McCardell created a denim "Popover" wraparound house-dress for women whose domestic servants had moved on to better-paying factory work. Fuel rationing meant that college dormitories were chilly, and another McCardell innovation was a wool leotard to be worn under sweaters and skirts during the winter months. Throughout her career, a hallmark of McCardell's designs was her introduction of new or unusual fabrics. American cotton, for instance, had rarely been used for anything but golf togs or housedresses, but she employed it for a range of sportswear items. She also favored wool jersey for evening wear.

McCardell married architect Irving Harris in 1943 and enjoyed a close relationship with his two children. By the time Townley made her a partner in 1952, she was an American celebrity who had received most of the top awards in her field. She was an advisor to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taught at Parsons, and was feted with a 1953 retrospective of her work by the Los Angeles art gallery Perls. McCardell wrote one book, What Shall I Wear?, published in 1956, and died of cancer two years later. Collections of her work can be found at the Design Laboratory of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum. Twenty-five years' worth of her design sketches are held by Parsons School of Design.


Pile, John. Dictionary of 20th-Century Design. NY: Facts on File, 1990.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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