“Clothes are for real live women…They are made to be worn, to be lived in.” – Claire McCardell
Claire McCardell is effectively the founder of American ready-to-wear fashion. Working from the 1930s through the 50s, McCardell was innovative because she designed clothing that was fashionable but also allowed women to move, breathe, and generally live their lives comfortably—all while feeling beautiful. Focusing more on sportswear, she turned her back on girdles, corsets, and uncomfortable construction, emphasizing that “clothes should be useful”—but still attractive, comfortable, and feminine.
McCardell designed throughout World War II, coming up with innovative workarounds when faced with wartime restrictions. She utilized whatever fabrics were available (even parachute cotton) in her designs and, when shoe leather became scarce, contracted Capezio to make their iconic ballet slippers, which would become a mainstay of the modern woman’s wardrobe. After World War II, American women had limited (if any) access to French fashions—and France was basically rebuilding an entire clothing industry. This opened the door for McCardell to recreate the image of the American woman, independent of excess outside influence. Her new style was more casual than pre-war clothing and embraced fabrics like denim, calico, and stretch jersey. She created wardrobes of mix-and-match separates that could be worn in a number of combinations—meaning more outfits for less money.
According to McCardell, her main design inspiration was her own intuition—believing that most women were employing their wardrobes to generally achieve the same things and solve the same problems. “Most of my ideas,” she said, “come from trying to solve my own problems.” The functionality and comfort of her garments relied on how they were constructed. Where some dresses had built-in shoulder pads to accent the shape of the arm, McCardell’s dresses created a similar look by changing the cut of the sleeve; pre-war dresses widely relied on corsets or foundation garments to create a desired silhouette—but McCardell created fitted garments by cutting on the bias or by belting full, circle skirts to create the “wasp waist” look of the day.
Her “American Look” permanently changed the landscape of fashion. Looking at photographs of McCardell’s designs today, it is clear that many of them have a timeless quality. Because she was not constantly adjusting her style from fashion season-to-season, her looks were consistent. They didn’t look dated. Many of her garments made in the 1940s would fit comfortably in closets today. Her once-revolutionary approach to style has become the norm.
The Museum at FIT has a collection of McCardell garments. To see more of her garments, browse those photos here.