McCardell makes a nice complement Anna Jenness Miller, the 19th-century dress reform advocate was profiled last week in this space. Like Jenness Miller, she wasn’t content to toe the party line — or toe the party line.
As a writer Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson put it in a 2018 Washington Post magazine story about the designer: “McCardell’s creations contained an alchemy that many of us still seek: the ability to command the narrative of our bodies and be seen not just as eye candy, but as a person to be reckoned with.
McCardell was born in 1905 to a Southern belle mother and a bank executive father. She was the oldest of four, the only daughter. She played with her brothers. The joy that comes from being able to run and move without hindrance must have come to him then, along with the despair that comes when that freedom is gone.
She wanted to study fashion, but her father insisted that she study home economics at Hood College. After a year, she convinced her parents to let her go to Parsons School of Design in New York. From there she went to Paris, where she bought designer clothes to share, studying how they were put together.
And how did you join? With insufficient thought of how women actually lived. “I don’t like the shine,” McCardell later said. “I like comfort in the rain, in the sun, comfort for active sports, comfort for sitting and looking good. Clothes should be useful.”
In 1938, McCardell returned to New York, working for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks. The story of the origin of her fame comes from what is said to have happened one day in August of that year in Townley’s showroom: she almost knocked a shopper out of a retail store as she walked across the room.
As Evitts Dickinson wrote: “That day, McCardell wore a dress she had made herself: a red wool shift, without padded shoulders or darts, and without a seamed waist to structure the body into the idealized hourglass silhouette. .”
The buyer found that dress more interesting than anything else in Townley’s collection and bought it off McCardell’s back to put into production. Because of its tapestry-like simplicity, the dress became known as the “Monastic”.
It was a ready-to-wear dress that looked good on anyone and could be accessorized with a belt at the waist. In 1942, McCardell invented the “popover,” a denim wrapper. Wrote the New York Times: “Women can do their housework in it and still look smart.”
Other McCardell innovations included blue-jean seams, trouser pleats, splits and zippers on the sides of skirts. When leather was rationed during the war, she joined Capezio in a line of ballet flats, moving them from the barracks to the streets.
Evitts Dickinson wrote: “The 1940s became the decade of the McCardell woman—wearing casual sweaters, wearing wrap dresses or pants with pockets, going braless, perhaps without heels, and feeling confident in wearing its elegant”.
In 1944, McCardell won the Coty Fashion Award. Two years later, she won the best sportswear designer award. Her ethos lives on, most recently in an $898 cotton dress from the designer tory burch which has “a timeless shape designed to have a modern stance and movement”.
McCardell died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 52. A few years ago, the Frederick Art Club, founded in 1897 by a group of female artists, art students and art lovers, was looking for a woman to honor. Club members wanted to “break the bronze ceiling”, helping to correct the inadequacy of statues dedicated to women. In a presentation, the Frederick historical society made the case for Claire McCardell.
“We were amazed,” he said Linda Moran, chairman of what became the Claire McCardell Project. “We just went, ‘Holy cow, that’s our guy.'”
The club commissioned a statue from Sarah Hempel Iran, a Frederick sculptor who did her own deep dive into McCardell’s life. “I make friends with dead people,” Hempel Irani told Answer Man. “I need to spend time with them to get a likeness.”
Hempel Irani does a lot of religious work, including statues of saints. “Each saint has an attribute, something that shows who that saint is,” she said. “It’s a visual language, like a code. When you see the guy with the keys, you know it’s him Saint Peter.”
What would be Claire McCardell’s attribute? Hempel Irani played with scissors, before recalling a favorite photo of the designer, posed with fabric arranged in a dress form.
She bought a vintage dress from an antique store and asked its model a long time ago, Dakota Lee – “She is the Virgin Mary in another sculpture” – to play with her. “She threw her arm over him and collapsed in a classic fashion pose. I said: ‘Don’t move! This is amazing.'”
The 7 ½-foot bronze sculpture was unveiled at the east end of Carroll Creek Park in Frederick on October 17, 2021. Said Hempel Irani: “I was wearing a denim dress with pockets, tied at the waist.”