Tag Archives: Claire McCardell

Ad Campaign – Fuller Fabrics Playtone, 1952

Playtone is color.  Playtone is texture. Playtone is Fuller Fabrics brilliant cotton with the crinkle that never needs ironing – and America’s playtime favorite.  In playclothes and by the yard in leading stores.  Beachcoat by Claire McCardell.

Crinkled cotton, and later crinkled synthetics, have gone in and out of fashion over the years.  I can remember a heavy crinkled cotton that was popular in the late 1970s.  I made a safari style suit of it and wore it for years and years until my sister shamed me into retiring it. (Something about the only people still using that fabric was the old ladies’ department at Walmart.)

I’m not really seeing the crinkle in that wonderful Claire McCardell beachcoat.  It looks like a smooth broadcloth to me.  But isn’t the coat great with the diagonal pockets and all that contrasting top-stitching?


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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

Ad Campaign – Claire McCardell for Canterbury, 1956

The stroke of a genius – Claire McCardell’s brilliant ideas on the sweater.  Canterbury tends to their knitting and full-fashions them to perfection.

I had to share just one last thought about Claire McCardell before I move on to the next obsession.  Her designs are the prefect examples of how “casual” does not have to equal “sloppy.”   In today’s severely dressed-down culture, it is so nice to see clothing that is comfortable but still attractive.

In the 1950s McCardell did several licensing deals, including this one with Canterbury.  She also did a line of shoes for Capezio, and gloves, jewelry, hats and sunglasses for various companies.   She also did quite a few product endorsements, including Clairol, Fuller Brush and Chevrolet.  Much of McCardell’s media success was due to the fact that she had a very good publicist – Eleanor Lambert.


Filed under Advertisements, Designers

McCall’s 4494: Claire McCardell Play Set

And here, as promised is the end result of my latest vintage sewing project.   The pattern dates to 1958, the last year of McCardell’s life.  It looks like a playsuit, but this is actually two pieces – shorts and halter.

In approaching this project, I wanted to make the pieces as close to actual McCardell garments as possible.  I started by rereading Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism by Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf.  Then I went on a web search for images of garments that would be similar to the pieces I’d be making.  McCardell is very well represented in many museum collections, and thanks to the idea of the on-line gallery, I was able to locate not only two play sets that are similar to mine, but I was also able to closely study the details on these sets and other McCardell garments.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art site turned out to be the most useful, due to multiple photographs of garments of interest.  I first found a halter and skirt that looked interesting:

copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I went to the Met site, I was pleased to find that this set also included a top and pleated shorts.  It dates to 1944, and was donated to the Met’s Costume Institute by McCardell in 1949.

Those lucky people at the Met have another set, this one with a one-piece playsuit and matching jacket and skirt.  It dates to 1943.

copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art

I wrote about how McCardell kept using ideas that worked, and these two designs along with my pattern is a great example of that design philosophy.  The structure of the shorts is basically the same in my pattern as what she used fifteen years prior, as is the shape of my halter and the 1943 design.

So what were the McCardellisms that I used in making these pieces?  First was my choice of fabric.  I wanted to use a cotton with some texture so that the bias cut would be obvious.  I also wanted to use a dark solid which would contrast nicely with the top-stitching.

In both of the play sets I found McCardell used white buttons.  I decided to go with another typical McCardell design feature, that of using metal buttons.  She loved the look of brass and often used brass hooks and buttons.

I liked the way the buttons were sewn on in a cross, and so I used that to attach my buttons as well. The red is the lining of the halter.  I like the way the red barely peeps out at the edges.

I took this photo before I finished the waist closing, but I changed the pattern which had a square button tab, to the arrow shaped one.  Yes, I did copy that feature from the two skirts and the shorts in the Met collection.

Sorry about the lack of a live model, but I’ll try to get some shots of me wearing it next month when we are at the beach.

As a side note:  I finally have found a constructive use for Pinterest.  That site was just as good at providing photos of McCardell garments as Google images, and there weren’t any random photos of this, that and the other thing.



Filed under Sewing

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

Time, May 2, 1955

I bet you thought you’d never see a Time cover here at The Vintage Traveler, but then again, if you knew Claire McCardell graced its cover in 1955, you might have seen this one coming.  The magazine is a must-have for McCardell fans, as there is an in-depth article about her work, the “American Look,” and the  American fashion industry.



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Currently Reading: Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism

I usually don’t spend a lot of time writing about designers as well known as Claire McCardell because it’s really hard to find something new to add to her already well-documented career.  But since I decided to make a play set using a Claire McCardell design from 1957, I’ve spent some time examining photos of her work, and re-reading this marvelous study of her career.

Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism was written in 1998 by Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf.  It’s part biography, part fashion history, with a great mix of vintage photos and modern photos showing her clothes on museum mannequins.  It all works to provide an excellent survey of what made her work so special.  Just by studying the photographs one can get a pretty good idea of what is meant by “McCardellisms” – the techniques she turned to again and again.

After a quick look at Amazon I was hesitant to even write about this book, as it is long out of print and quite pricey.  Still, it is well worth trying to track down a copy at a decent price.  I bought mine several years ago at a book discounter.

Expect this new-found interest in McCardell to continue over the next week.  I’m almost finished with the sewing project and will be showing it off very soon.

The halter top of this dress is very similar to the top I’m making.

I have three McCardell’s in my collection, including this jacket in a green herringbone.  I found it in a thrift store, and then proceeded to tear the place apart looking for the matching skirt.  No such luck.

This bodice is from McCardell’s last collection, summer 1958.  My set has similar white top-stitching.

And finally, a few wool jersey swimsuits.


Filed under Currently Reading