Before there was Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang, or Tory Burch, there was Claire McCardell.
McCardell, who was born in 1905 and began designing clothes when she was in her twenties, helped define American fashion as we know it. In her time, American dressmakers sought inspiration from the rising cadre of European fashion designers, but McCardell wasn’t interested in making luxurious gowns for the upper crust. Instead, she wanted to create garments that busy women could wear everyday. She also had a knack for clever innovations like pockets, ballet flats, and dresses without waists that could adapt to different body sizes.
Unlike iconic designers of the time, such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, McCardell’s name has been largely forgotten. Few people realize that many of the clothes we wear everyday go back to designs that she created. Tory Burch wants to change that. The American designer is using her influence to highlight McCardell’s.
Burch wrote the foreword to McCardell’s newly reissued book, What Shall I Wear?, which was originally released in 1956. She’s established a fellowship devoted to McCardell’s work at the Maryland Center for History and Culture (MCHC), which houses one of the largest collection of her pieces. She also created an entire Spring/Summer 2022 collection inspired by McCardell, including replicating two of her designs.
Burch first came across McCardell in an art history class when she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Even then, Burch was shocked by how little people knew about her. “It’s another example of how women have been overlooked in history,” she says. “So many women’s contributions haven’t been documented properly, and little girls don’t have the role models they should have. I think this is something we need to change collectively.”
Eventually, Burch pursued a career in fashion, launching her own label in 2004. As she designed collections, she began to see how McCardell’s work continues to influence American fashion. “She borrowed from menswear and workwear,” says Burch. “She used unconventional fabrics, like denim and jersey. And she came up with new ways of looking at clothes, by paring them down, cutting them in new ways. I don’t know a single designer who isn’t inspired by her.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, women were encumbered by their clothes; many still wore corsets, Burch points out. But McCardell wanted to design clothes that would allow women to live full, active lives. She was fascinated with fashion from the time she was a child growing up in Maryland. She moved to New York City to attend the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, now known as Parsons School of Design, and then attended a Paris branch of the school. While many of McCardell’s peers were drawn to the artistry of French high fashion, McCardell was interested in blending elegance with functionality: She wanted to create pieces that would allow women to move freely.
A few years after graduating, she landed a job as an assistant to the designer Robert Turk in 1930. When he began designing for the dress company Townley Frocks, he brought McCardell with him. But in 1932, Turk died in a drowning accident, and McCardell was asked to complete his fall collection. Within years, she was the brand’s best-known designer, her name appearing on clothing labels. McCardell chose to spend her career designing affordable, mass-market clothes, rather than luxury garments. Most of her outfits cost the equivalent of $100 in today’s currency.
One of her early pieces from 1938, the Monastic Dress, was a frock without a defined waist that came with a belt, which meant women could wear it comfortably even as their bodies changed over time. The Popover Dress, perhaps her most famous piece, was a wrap dress designed in 1942 to be worn from the kitchen to a dinner party. It contained a large pocket, a rarity back then (and today), in which some women carried an oven mitt.
And she effectively invented the ballet flat. She reached out to the ballet brand Capezio to redesign a pointe shoe with a durable sole that a woman could wear around town more comfortably than the heels that were common at the time. “She was a feminist,” says Burch. “She was driven by the concept of giving women freedom; men didn’t have to deal with these issues, so why should women?”
There isn’t a single reason that McCardell has faded from our collective memory. One might be that that McCardell died of colon cancer at the age of 52, Burch posits, which meant that she died at the height of her career and didn’t have the time to solidify her legacy. There’s also the fact that after her passing, her family immediately shuttered her brand rather than bringing in another designer like European fashion houses have done.
Burch believes we now have an opportunity to remember McCardell and honor her work. For one thing, she wants researchers and designers to mine the archive of her work, which is why she is sponsoring a fellowship that will allow a fashion scholar to curate an exhibition on her. Burch herself spent hours in the MCHC, poring over McCardell’s correspondence with famous designers and artists of the time, from Picasso to Yves Saint Laurent. “You start to see the global impact she had,” Burch says.
Burch also studied garments McCardell designed. “There aren’t many remaining dresses because women wore her dresses out,” says Burch. “That’s a lesson in its own right. Today, women want dresses that last and have integrity and quality. McCardell showed us how to do that.”
But Burch thinks that designers like herself can play a role in highlighting McCardell’s influence and legacy in their own work. As she designed each piece in her McCardell-inspired collection, Burch drew inspiration both aesthetically and functionally from McCardell’s work. Instead of seamed waists, Burch defined waists on outfits with belts, sashes, and bandeaus, which created balanced proportions with full skirts and relaxed trousers. She created exact replicas of two pairs of shoes McCardell created, the flat she created with Capezio in 1953, and a striped silk-cotton boot.
One of Burch’s favorite pieces in the collection is called the Claire McCardell dress. It is made from cotton that features pleats from shoulder to hem, allowing the wearer to move comfortably, and features side pockets. It’s both functional and beautiful, and is strikingly similar to many of McCardell’s iconic dresses, even though it looks modern. “People are extremely visually,” says Burch. “One way we can preserve [McCardell’s] legacy is by showing them what she did. Her clothes are timeless.”