Among the qualities most strongly associated with American clothes now are functionality and sleekness, and yet they were not always synonymous with US designs. There was a time when American fashion was essentially just a version of whatever it was that Paris had proposed that particular season, in a variety of colors. American designers were less designers, than fashion copyists.
This all changed with World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Claire McCardell was just one designer who had suddenly gotten a chance to promote designs that were not particularly…French. She rose to the challenge of providing clothes in wartime, the materials she used, chiefly cottons and knits, were inexpensive and easy to get. When closures had to change due to shortages, McCardell used steel hooks or piping sewn into long “spaghetti straps” to tie around waists and customize dresses. She created her own wide belts, in elastic materials that held in the waist without corseting it, and her clothing paired well with functional footwear, ballet slippers (un-rationed footwear during the war) and slave sandals. She created elasticized snoods for skiing, dresses made of triangles sewn together, wrap sashes in knit fabrics that would not slide down, evening gowns of washable cotton piquet. Who was this practical woman?
She was born in Fredrick Maryland in 1905 to a well to do family and from the first had a passion for understanding clothing, not just its effect when worn, but the construction that made certain clothes easier to wear and to move in. Accordingly she took clothes apart-including her siblings’-to understand the engineering of fabric. Raised with three brothers, she had an early sense that girl’s clothes were impractical and that prettiness ought to be sublimated to comfort and mobility.
Somewhat against her father’s wishes, she attended Parsons, and after graduating, held positions at B. Altmans and with the designer Hattie Carnegie before finding a more permanent home with the firm of Townley, makers of ready to wear fashions. There she began a long career which included such hits as the “Nada” dress marketed by Best and Co. a waistless dress, somewhat inspired by a monk’s robe, that could be belted for a comfortable fit, and which was sold in both short length for day and in a long version for evening. Price: 29.95 in 1938. She sold that dress for many seasons in many different varieties.
Her next hit was the “popover” originally a denim apron wrapdress that could be slid on over a dress to keep the original garment clean while gardening or pottering. Claire was given a citation from the American Fashion Critics’ Award for the design, and in her book, What Shall I Wear? She wrote that she’d heard that most of the authoresses in New York wrote in popovers.
A year or two later she had perfected the shirtwaist dress, a classic, indelibly associated with the fifties and such fictional housewives as Donna Reed. Almost everyone had and wore a shirtwaist, in all sorts of colors and prints. The wide swinging skirt hid figure flaws, and was adaptable to summer and winter wear. But it was sportsclothes that interested McCardell, an outdoorswoman all her life, the most. She wanted coats that closed easily, created a fur lined buckle closed coat that could be worn in stadiums and on ski slopes, and an exaggerated turtleneck blouse that allowed the wearer to pull the fabric up over her head. She was even involved in the launching of Sports Ilustrated, and wrote in an early issue about women and sports, “Sports clothes changed our lives, because they changed out thinking about clothes.”
This changed thinking affected her designs for bathing suits, suits that followed the body faithfully: the loincloth suit, the wrap suit. “I like to swim,” she wrote, “I like bathing suits made of lightweight wool jersey with necklines that move around and don’t mark my sunburn.”
This practicality marked everything she made, and she was proud of it. “ I have never deliberately sketched out a certain look and thought of it as American, but every collection I designed is planned for a thoroughly American way of life.”
Married relatively late to Texas business man Irving Drought Harris, she only lived to be fifty three before succumbing to cancer. Her designs however, still influence the way clothes are worn in the US, and the emphasis we still place on practicality and mobility, and a certain democracy in the fine design but modest fabrics that cover people every day. Diana Vreeland said of her that she, “ knew and respected the human body and its proportions, totally, totally, TOTALLY”.