Thoroughly modern McCardell Designer: Frederick native Claire McCardell started a fashion revolution in the 1930s. Now, her legacy is being celebrated in a book, a gallery and a retrospective show.

October 04, 1998|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Fashion Editor

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.

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