Like the clothes she designed, Claire McCardell was an American original. This shy woman from a small town in Maryland accomplished an improbable feat: She redefined the direction of American fashion.
In the late 1930s, McCardell first earned the reputation of iconoclast - persuading women to buck Paris trends and embrace her easy, stylish sportswear. She went on to become a celebrity - her elegant face gracing the cover of Time magazine. And among those who know of her, she is still hailed as a feminist heroine.
But most often her story is unknown. Now, 40 years after her death, fashion history is being rewritten. A new book, "Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism," is helping put the designer's life and work in perspective. The Maryland Historical Society is opening a costume and textile gallery named after McCardell; the first show, which begins Friday, features her creations. And New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is planning a retrospective starting Oct. 27.
"She was a pioneer," says designer Geoffrey Beene, whose clothes show the McCardell influence. "She contributed beautiful and pragmatic ideas to get us where fashion is now. ... She used humble fabrics and couture styling. For her to have done that, at the prices she did, was extraordinary. Her dresses were a luscious bargain."
Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at FIT, calls McCardell's designs a living legacy.
"You couldn't have people like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan without having Claire McCardell first," she says. "Her genius continues."
Or perhaps the designer herself said it best decades ago: "Good fashion somehow earns the right to survive."
She was first introduced to good fashion while growing up in Frederick. Nowadays, there are fewer oak trees and more houses on the street where she lived, but the Federal-style house with the green shutters where Claire McCardell first fell in love with fashion still stands.
Her brother Bob lives there, and his admiration for his sister is strong. Her portrait hangs in the front hall. Scrapbooks rest on the dining room table. And he points toward the second-floor landing where young Claire watched intently as a seamstress - Miss Annie Koogle - made clothes for the family twice a year.
"Claire would hang around her and watch as much as she could," says Bob McCardell, 85. "She knew what she wanted to do from the time she was a child."
A girlhood friend, Fritzie Smith, recalls how she and Claire spent hours playing paper dolls in the McCardells' attic. Claire was fast and creative - often designing her own outfits from pictures she saw in magazines.
"Claire was always striking. She was always sophisticated-looking," Smith says. "But what tickled everybody so was she'd let out with this girlish giggle. ... It stayed with her her whole life."
Born in 1905, she grew up with three younger brothers, who helped bring out the tomboy in her. She earned the nickname "Kick" for her ability to keep the boys from pushing her around. Her love of sports contributed to her pragmatism in fashion. She believed fabrics should be durable and styles should let women move.
"I've always designed things I needed myself," McCardell often said. "It just turns out that other people need them too."
At 16, she was eager to move to New York, but her father - a banker and state senator - wouldn't allow it. Her lack of enthusiasm for the compromise, majoring in home economics at nearby Hood College, showed in her mediocre grades.
Two years later, she prevailed and began studies at the School of Fine and Applied Arts (later known as Parsons School of Design).
"To leave Hood and to go to New York - I never thought she was the type to do it," says Smith, 90. "But she had something in her that said, 'Go!' and she listened to it."
After graduating, she had a series of unfulfilling jobs - including a stint painting flowers on paper lamp shades - and briefly returned to Frederick to regroup.
It was clear even then that she was in a different fashion league.
Her brother Adrian recalls how she came down for church one Sunday morning in a "flashy" hat. "We all said we wouldn't go to church with her in that," says McCardell, 90, who lives in Roland Park. "She went upstairs and changed. But people were always interested in what she would wear to church."
Their mother - a Southern belle from Mississippi - believed that her children should be well-dressed, but the boys were hardly fashion plates. (None of them went into fashion. Adrian and Bob followed their father into banking; the youngest, Max, who lives in Hagerstown, headed a public utility.)
In 1928, she landed her first break - working as a fit model for B. Altman's. She walked with a slouchy, hips-forward style that she eventually taught to her own models.
Several years later, she was hired as an assistant to designer Robert Turk, who eventually joined a larger company, Townley Frocks, bringing McCardell with him.
A tragic accident thrust her into the limelight. In 1932, Turk drowned and Claire was asked to finish the fall line. She was promoted to designer but didn't make her imprint until 1938, when she created the Monastic dress, a flowing, bias-cut dress that cinched at the waist with a sash or belt.
Best & Co. demanded an exclusive, and the $29.95 dress sold out in a day.
Townley spent so much money trying to halt knockoffs of the Monastic that the company briefly went out of business. But after restructuring, it reopened, and McCardell got something virtually unheard of for American designers: her name on clothing labels.
At that time, Steele says, "You had the name of the store or the manufacturer. The designer was someone kept in the back room. ... But she wanted the credit. It wasn't an ego trip. It was just an acknowledgment of her work."
Against the backdrop of the corseted and much-copied French fashions, McCardell's work looked startlingly new. She disliked the artifice of fashion and did away with bust darts, shoulder pads and restrictive underpinnings.
The designer even coined a term for her innovations, calling them McCardellisms. They included metal closures, double rows topstitching, spaghetti-string ties and sashes, and menswear touches.
She loved pockets and eschewed back zippers. She believed in a wardrobe based on easy-to-mix separates. And her swimsuits - lacking in construction, padding and even linings - were particularly bold, especially when contrasted with the girdle- and bra-enhanced designs popular at the time.
Through such work, she became a leading proponent of what was known as "The American Look."
While some designers chafed under fabric restrictions imposed during World War II, McCardell - who already worked in denim, calico and wool jersey - thrived.
"When the government declared a surplus on weather balloon cottons in 1944, McCardell ordered it by the truckload, and soon American women were wearing it with pride," wrote Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf in their book, "Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism" (Abrams).
But perhaps the garment that best epitomized her practical side was the Pop-over, a denim wrap dress with an apron and attached oven mitt. It cost $6.95, and hundreds of thousands sold.
Such a dress, while commercially successful, contributed to the perception - or misperception - that Claire McCardell dressed the suburban housewife.
But her clothes were worn by a wide variety of people - from college students and working women to celebrities and society matrons. "We found evidence that Joan Crawford liked Claire's clothes," says Nolf, an administrator at Hood College. "Lauren Bacall was one of her models in the early days."
She also had a following among the fashion elite. Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland was an admirer, and Life fashion editor Sally Kirkland was one of her closest friends.
Geoffrey Beene was just starting out on Seventh Avenue when McCardell's career was taking off. "In New York, she was revered," says Beene, who worked in the same building but was too shy to introduce himself.
Along with commercial success came industry awards. Her Pop-over dress received a citation from the American Fashion Critics Association. In 1943, she won a coveted Coty Award. But the honor she cherished most was a certificate of achievement from the Women's National Press Club, presented by President Harry S. Truman.
While she had many professional supporters, her architect husband, Irving Drought Harris, was not one of them. They met on an ocean liner and married when McCardell was 37. He had two children from a previous marriage, whom she helped raise.
"He never approved of her career," Bob McCardell says. "He would have been happy if she gave that up. ... But she had made a name for herself. And she was intent on having her career. It was her first love."
Many believe she was at the height of that career in 1957 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer and given six months to live.
"She didn't want anyone coming to see her in the hospital," Bob McCardell says. "She didn't want people to go to that trouble."
A designer friend helped with her final collection, but when Claire saw it, she got out of bed to alter the sketches.
"In spite of impending death, anything coming out in her name she wanted to make sure was hers," Adrian McCardell says.
She checked herself out of the hospital in time to present that final collection in early 1958.
Many realized these would be the last Claire McCardells they would see and crowded into New York's Pierre Hotel for the show. Afterward, she received a standing ovation.
When she died in March at age 52, the letters of condolence - from designers, department-store owners and fashion journalists - filled a scrapbook. Although she lived most of her life in New York, she chose to be buried in Frederick, blocks from where she grew up, under a towering pine tree.
After her death, her family debated continuing the label. "But we decided to let the name die with her," Adrian McCardell says. "It wasn't that difficult. Claire's ideas were always her own."
More about Claire McCardell
"Claire McCardell: Forging an American Style," an exhibit about the life and work of fashion designer Claire McCardell, will take place at the Maryland Historical Society's new Claire McCardell Costume and Textile Gallery from Oct. 9 through April 18. For admission prices or more information, call 410-685-3750.
"Claire McCardell and the American Look," a major retrospective of the work of Claire McCardell, will be on view from Oct. 27 through Jan. 9 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Admission is free. Call 212-217-5800.
Pub Date: 10/04/98