Claire McCardell, a Biography

Tomorrow I’ll be ending up this little mini series on Claire McCardell by revealing my sewing project.  I hope you’ll enjoy seeing it as much as I’ve enjoyed the making process.  But for today, here is a little refresher course on McCardell’s career, and on the things that make her such an icon of the mid 20th century fashion world.

Claire McCardell’s name is well-established as one of the most important American designers of the 20th Century.   She was educated at Parsons School of Design where she spent her second year studying and working in Paris.  While in Paris, McCardell was exposed to the work of the best French designers of the period.

It’s interesting that McCardell, who is considered by many to be the quintessential American designer, was fascinated and influenced by the work of Vionnet.  This influence can be seen in McCardell’s work throughout her career, especially in her use of the bias cut, and in closings that wrap or tie.

After finishing her schooling, McCardell struggled to find her place in the fashion world.   Her big chance came in 1929, when she was hired by designer Robert Turk.   In 1931, she went to Townley Frocks as an assistant to Turk when his firm merged with Townley and he was given the job of head designer.   When he died in an accident, McCardell was given the job of finishing the fall 1932 line.   The designs were a moderate success, and McCardell was given the job of head designer.

During these first years at Townley, McCardell began to develop what she referred to as “McCardellisms” – the signature touches that she turned to again and again.  These included bias cutting, metal hook fasteners, dolman sleeves, wrap tie fasteners, and asymmetrical closings.

She began to use fabrics in new ways.  Tweeds were made into evening coats and evening dresses were made from soft, warm wools.  Even though she was developing a distinctive style, McCardell’s name was not on the label.  The Townley Frocks label of the 1930s reads “Townley Frocks” and has a picture of a woman golfer swinging her club.

While at Townley, McCardell was sent to Paris to view the collections.  And while she did reintrepret many of the latest Paris styles for Townley, she also was influenced by traditional costumes and found inspiration in the  streets of the city.

Her first huge success came in the fall of 1938.  This was her Monastic dress, a dress that had no front, back, or waistline, and that tied to suit the wearer.  This dress was originally produced for Best & Co. who marketed the dress as the Nada Frock.  Its huge success led to its inclusion in the Townley line.

Because of financial and legal problems, Townley was forced to close in 1938.  McCardell was offered a job at Hattie Carnegie, designing a line called “Workshop Originals.” McCardell’s casual style did not mesh well with the more glamorous Hattie Carnegie image, and so she left in 1940.  She went to work for Win-Sum, a line of low cost clothing.

Townley reorganized and reopened in 1941.   McCardell was made head designer at Townley under the condition that her name be put on the label, and with the understanding that her clothing would be produced exactly as she designed it with no changes.

With these agreements in place, McCardell was free to make the kind of clothes that she wanted – clothes that were comfortable and easy to wear, and which took “sportswear” to a whole new level.  Townley was no longer just a “frock house” because McCardell was making a wide assortment of garments – bathing suits, evening wear, golf ensembles, coats and dresses, all with the same casual outlook.

Many of McCardell’s designs have a timeless quality. This was because she was not trying to reinvent the dress twice a year, but rather, she kept the design ideas that worked for her and that were comfortable and versatile.   She stuck with her “McCardellisms” because they worked.  And women loved McCardell’s clothing because it didn’t look dated after a year of wear.  For this reason, McCardell designs can sometimes be hard to place a date upon today.

In 1957, Claire McCardell was diagnosed with cancer.  Her design career was as strong as ever, and she spent her last months finishing up the collections for 1958.  She died in March, 1958, at the age of 53.  By that time, many of her ideas which had seemed so radical in the 1930s were an accepted part of the American lifestyle – the idea of clothing as separates, and clothing that was easy care and made from practical cotton fabrics.  And today, one could easily wear a Claire McCardell dress and not raise any suspicions that her dress was over 50 years old.


Filed under Designers

7 responses to “Claire McCardell, a Biography

  1. Janet

    That white dress pretty much sums up everything you say about Claire McCardell. If only it were available as a pattern …


  2. Sources:

    Carter, Ernestine, Magic Names of Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.

    Chambers, Bernice G., Fashion Fundamentals. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1947.

    McDowell, Colin, McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1985.

    Martin, Richard, American Ingenuity, Sportswear 1930s – 1970s. New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Stegemeyer, Anne, Who’s Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1980, 1988.

    Williams, Beryl, Fashion Is Our Business. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1945.

    Yohannan, Kohle and Nolf, Nancy, Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.


  3. Teresa

    I adore McCardell’s designs. Thanks so much for this refresher on her history. I’m looking forward to seeing your sewing project! 🙂


  4. And your book is on its way!


  5. So interesting – thank you!


  6. Thanks for the interesting history lesson! Can’t wait to see your finished sewing project! =)


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