Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's Clear it's Claire

Clare was claire-voyant
If you were to put a finger on who was the number one force behind creating American Style, the clear choice would have to be Claire McCardell. Not discussed much today, she is such a part of my own fashion-think I sometimes forget that. Thanks to The Vintage Traveler blogger, who is having her own Claire revelation, for the reminder.

Claire McCardell may soon be having her moment in the sun. The collective talents of Isaac Mizrahi, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, Michal Kors and Donna Karan have long referenced Claire McCardell. The proliferation of self-help tomes, television runway and makeover programs, personal shoppers and multitudes of bloggers (myself included) endlessly clogging up the stratosphere with fashion may have led us back to this creative, all-inclusive and commercially successful talent.

Claire was born in Maryland in 1905. After two years of college, she moved to New York to study at what is now Parson's School of Design and graduated in 1925. She had spent a year in Paris and was a fan of the innovative designer Vionnet, master draper and queen of the bias cut. From the start Claire was a pioneer in what was a male-dominated profession— the commercial dress designer. She became the anonymous head designer for Townley Frocks in 1931. Following some ups and downs, she returned to Townley in 1939 with her name on the label, thus becoming one of the first American designers to have label recognition.

She continued to create and innovate through the restrictions of WWII. She showed her line with models wearing fabric ballet slippers and set off a footwear trend that is still going strong. She saw the opportunity to promote American fashion as its own style based not on the dictates of Paris but our way of life. She died at the top of her game in 1958 and on the cusp of the modern era of personal creativity in fashion.
From 1934 but could be today
Claire as her own best model

Besides the obvious timelessness of her pieces, these are some of her innovations:
> Using humble fabrics like denim and gingham in dressed-up ways
> Finding inspiration in traditional American style (workshirts, bloomers)
> Emphasizing ease of wearability— ie a bias-cut jersey dress that could be belted or not, called "The Monastic"
> Creating a wrap dress called "The Popover" that could be a cover-up, house dress or party dress depending on fabric
 > Embracing comfort as opposed to stiff construction and/or the need for uncomfortable foundation garments
> Creating a couture line that dressed well-heeled customers as well as manufacturing popular-priced apparel— Lord & Taylor sold a version of The Popover in the 1950s for $8
> Being one of the first to license her name for a variety of products— accessories, eyeglasses, car interiors, paper dolls, sewing patterns and children's wear
The gingham sundress
The bloomer bathing suit 
The Popover
The paperdolls

Claire McCardell became my very own Finery Godmother at the tender age of fourteen (my age not hers). That is when I discovered her book, "What Shall I Wear". I read and re-read "WSIW" incessantly. It opened my eyes to a future I didn't know I had— dressing creatively, yet appropriately, for all the occasions of my grown-up life to come. After false hopes a few years ago, word is that "What Shall I Wear" will indeed be reprinted this October. The book is charming, still relevant today (maybe more so). In an age when we are both urged to be individuals and to be "in", finding your happy place can be tricky.

"What Shall I Wear" 1956 version
 2012 version due out in October


  1. Great post. I just signed up to get her new version when it comes out.
    Have you read Redefining Modernism?

  2. I'm very happy to have been your reminder. I don't think we can say too much about Claire McCardell and her influence on the way we dress.

  3. Love this post! I love that every one of her outfits pictured above I want to wear NOW.

    And yes,I have her re-release on Amazon alert too.

  4. Just love her use of plaid and calicos--all are too cute for words. So yes, it does seem that she is the mother of real clothes for real women!

  5. I've always loved her, but I've never read her exciting that it's being reprinted! I'll get a copy for sure. Thanks for a great post!