CR Muse: Godmother of American Fashion, Claire McCardell

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Fashion doesn’t have to be elaborate or couture to be impactful. With clothing being an intrinsic element of our everyday lives, often the most groundbreaking changes are the ones in the world of ready-to-wear. There is one woman we can thank for the sportswear industry as we know it today: Claire McCardell. Not only did she usher in a new era of American fashion, she arguably birthed the industry as we know it today.

Among her most famous and innovative designs was the Monastic dress, from 1938. The dress itself was tent-like—an A-line silhouette that lacked form by itself. But McCardell issued the dress with a matching fabric belt that could cinch the frock in a number of ways, making it form-fitting to any type of body. Gone was the need for a dressmaker, or a tailor, or body-shaping undergarments. The clothes worked for the woman, and not the other way around. Naturally, it became the best-selling dress the year it was introduced.

McCardell’s “Pop-over” dress from 1942 was another landmark. She was challenged to design something women could cook and clean in that would still look put together and presentable for guests. It was a massive hit, and became one of her staple pieces. “Clothes are for real live women,“ she said. „They are made to be worn, to be lived in.”

McCardell was born in Maryland in 1905. She was an independent young woman from an early age, and earned the nickname „kick“ because she wouldn’t let boys push her around. After a few years of convincing her father, she managed to move to New York at 18 to study fashion at what is now known as Parsons School of Design. She eventually became an assistant designer to Robert Turk, who would go on to work for Townley Frocks. When Turk suddenly passed away, McCardell stepped up and finished his collection, subsequently launching her career at Townley as a designer.

After the success of the Monastic dress, McCardell earned another huge step for ready-to-wear designers: her name on a label. „You had the name of the store or the manufacturer [on the label]. The designer was someone kept in the back room,“ curator Valerie Steele once explained. „But she wanted the credit. It wasn’t an ego trip. It was just an acknowledgment of her work.“

Beyond promoting ideas of functionality in fashion, McCardell’s lasting legacy has truly been on the personality of the American fashion industry: sporty, streamlined, and functional. Before she passed in 1958 of cancer, she was apparently she was so committed to her work that she finished her final collection from her hospital bed.

McCardell didn’t live to see a future when women broke free from the home and entered the workforce. One wonders how she might have designed for working women. Luckily, her influence extended to a new generation of designers. From Donna Karan to Calvin Klein, American fashion has been defined by a sense of freedom for women, all thanks to Claire McCardell.

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