Claire McCardell and the American look

Designer: At a time when the fashion world looked to Paris, this Frederick native looked away.

Marylanders Of The Century

August 07, 1999

SHE HAS BEEN called a revolutionary and a liberator. Yet few today know the name Claire McCardell.

Walk into a department store, though, and "McCardellisms" fill the racks -- in pedal pushers, wraparound dresses, hoods, spaghetti straps and revealing swimwear. McCardell, a Frederick native, was author of the "American look" for women.

She was born in 1905 and showed her fancy for fashion early, making paper dolls from women's magazine photos and designing her dresses with the help of the family's seamstress. After graduating from high school, she spent two years in the home economics program at Hood College before persuading her parents to let her study at the School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design) in New York.

The fashion world McCardell entered in 1926 was fixated on Paris, where she completed course work and copied couture. She and schoolmates combed flea markets, buying French clothes and bringing them back to their rooms to unstitch their secrets.

With a head full of ideas, McCardell returned to New York and graduated from Parsons. She then spent three frustrating years getting hired and fired, painting lamp shades and modeling before meeting designer Robert Turk, who took her with him in 1929 to Townley Frocks, a dress and sportswear company. Three years later, after Turk's death in a boating accident, McCardell, then just 27, was asked to finish his fall line.

An avid athlete, McCardell designed clothes for active women. Her mass-produced, affordable fashions were revolutionary in their spareness, their nod to menswear and use of "experimental" fabrics like jersey and rayon.

For several years, reviews of her radical designs were spotty. Her breakthrough came in 1938, when after several years of working with different designers, she returned to Townley and created the "Monastic" dress, which drew on Algerian styling and hung simply from the shoulders and could be belted any way by the wearer. This success gained her the right to put the McCardell name on her clothes, a recognition few designers of the time achieved.

During World War II, McCardell stepped into the design void left after the Nazis dropped the curtain on French fashion. She took government surpluses of weather balloon cottons and turned them into sportswear; in 1942, she came out with the $6.95 Popover, a stylish wraparound denim dress, with a matching oven mitt, for busy housewives.

McCardell became a sensation.

She was a regular visitor to Maryland during these years, coming home to ski or visit family. She was married in 1943 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore to Texas architect Irving Harris. Twice a year, she passed along new designs to an aunt, Pauline McCardell, who lived in Frederick and became the hometown purveyor of her niece's clothes.

After the war, she turned to helping aspiring designers as a volunteer critic in the fashion design department at Parsons. She also worked on an advisory panel formed by Time Inc. in 1954 to create a new magazine, from which Sports Illustrated was born.

The award-winning designer's star was still rising in the 1950s when she was diagnosed with cancer. In January 1958, just two months before her death at 52, McCardell slipped out of the hospital with her former schoolmate and design collaborator, Mildred Orrick, to attend her last show.

Claire McCardell was a mother of modernism. She was also a shy, small-town Maryland girl who parlayed paper dolls into party dresses, followed her dreams to the big time -- and made it.

Her work remains quite visible, not only in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, but in racks of women's wear in stores throughout the world.

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