Currently Reading – What Shall I Wear by Claire McCardell

You might be interested to know that the 1956 book What Shall I Wear, by designer Claire McCardell, has finally been republished and is now available.  I haven’t actually seen the new reprint, and the page on Amazon does not show any of the interior, but it refers to the “charming illustrations” so I’m thinking the book was printed as it was in the 1950s.  I would not be even questioning this, but I recently learned that the reprint of Elegance, by  Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, is actually abridged.

I’ll be talking about the original, which I’ve been able to read thanks to Michelle Braverman, whom I want to thank again.  I will probably pick up a copy of the reprint, but what I really want is a vintage copy.  Perhaps the reprint will drive down the price of the original.   One can hope…

Let me start by saying that I’ve always loved fashion how-to books.  I love lists of must-have clothes, and lists of fashion don’ts.  Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the rules of fashion were changing rapidly, but in my little corner of America, fashion rules still seemed to be appropriate.  I would have loved McCardell’s book when I was fifteen, in 1970.  But I was born too late, and instead I got my fashion advice from Seventeen and the Simplicity pattern catalog.

While this is a 50s period piece – lots of writing about crinolines and “what will your husband think” – much of the advice is still relevant today.  Quite a bit of the book is centered around the idea that you must know yourself, your body and your lifestyle, in order to made good fashion decisions.  That seems to be complete common sense, but how many people do you know today that need to take a good long look in the mirror, or need to reassess the appropriateness of their attire.

McCardell covers many aspects of fashion in her book, from developing a wardrobe of coats (...long ones, short ones, coats that are capes, warm ones, not so warm ones, and made out of a number of things…) to collecting “little things” (Jewelry, belts, shoes, gloves, bags, hats, scarves…).  But my favorite chapters were, of course, the ones on sportswear and travel clothes.

On sports clothes:  The little things that make sports clothes correct or incorrect are hardly noticable to the newcomer, yet the mistakes made by the novice are glaring ones to the old-timer.

On travel clothes:  Don’t forget that the moment you leave the privacy of your own home, you are in the public eye.  You are instantly subjected to the critical eye of station masters, porters, hotel clerks, stewards, bellboys.  And what a really educated eye they have when it comes to appraising a traveler!

Today, all the travel industry workers surely have a harder time appraising the traveler, but I’m sure they have their ways of predicting the travelers who will be the good tippers!

There seem to be two different covers on the new edition of What Shall I Wear?  The one I’m showing features a 1952 photograph of Lisa  Fonssagrives wearing a McCardell dress.  Photo by Richard Rutledge.


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

9 responses to “Currently Reading – What Shall I Wear by Claire McCardell

  1. Oh, I hope it’s an exact reprint! Just the cover alone is beautiful! Thanks for letting everyone know it’s available again – I just added it to my wishlist. =)


  2. I am really lucky to have the original vintage book, as well as the republished version! Sally Knapp, of The Overlook Press has kindly sent me a shiny new copy, and inside, there’s my photo, of a Claire McCardell label, inside a Monastic dress. It’s right next to a photo of the original 50s dust jacket, and there are more extra added glossy photos too! Plus, all of the super wonderful illustrations by Annabrita are included. This new version of the book is super exciting awesome, as you might imagine!

    Lizzie, love the bits you’ve excerpted above, which provide perfect examples of the flavor and charm of the book.


  3. Thanks for writing about this book, Lizzie. I’m a generation ahead of you and still love this. Off to find a copy!


  4. I’ve been wanting to read a copy of this book for ages so thanks so much for posting about it Lizzie!


  5. Hello. I found your blog the other day and I am hooked! First, you love Claire McCardell and I’m super fond of anyone who loves Claire McCardell. Second, I’m so thankful that Overlook republished What Shall I Wear? I recently did a review of the reprint from Overlook and the original 1956 version. With the exception of the excerpt from the Time Magazine article and the acknowledgement to Edith Heal, I think they are a match; don’t believe any other edits were made to the reprint other than adding the wonderful color photo section. I recently bought a McCardell wool dress and am in awe at the techniques. Stunning. Simple. Elegant. Functional.


    • Hi Susan. I’m so glad you found me! Yes, I am a McCardell lover to be sure. It is great knowing that the new book is pretty much a complete reprint, but the omission of Edith Beal is puzzling. According to what I’ve read, she was the ghost writer of the book, and to take her name off is most unfair to her.


  6. Leslie

    Speaking of the book Elegance, there is a fiction novel of the same name by Kathleen Tessaro that incorporates this book of French, how shall I say, advice to better the protagonist’s life. I highly recommend it.


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