Claire McCardell: In Print & Out of the Box
In preparation for the opening of the new Spectrum of Fashion exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS), and the Francis Scott Key Lecture, “Why We Wear What We Wear—The Legacy of Claire McCardell,” MdHS Volunteer Curatorial Assistant Barbara Meger delved into the life and work of Maryland-born McCardell via the Claire McCardell Collection, 1923–1995 (MS 3066), housed in the MdHS’s H. Furlong Baldwin Library. In this post, Barbara discusses the collection’s extensive newspaper and magazine advertisements.
Claire McCardell (1905–1958) [Figure 1], the prominent twentieth-century American fashion designer, was born in Frederick, Maryland, and attended Hood College before continuing her studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York where she lived most of her life. She was head designer for the mid-market dress manufacturer Townley Frocks and is credited with originating the “American Look”: simple, practical clothing that could be worn every day by busy women.
The extensive McCardell manuscript collection was gifted to MdHS in 1998 and 1999 by her brothers Robert and Adrian McCardell, Jr., and consists of correspondence, articles from periodicals, advertisements, notes, manuscript drafts, and related ephemera. It was the many copies of newspaper and magazine advertisements that drew my attention as I was concurrently studying the approximately twenty-five garments designed by McCardell housed in the boxes of the Maryland Historical Society Fashion Archives. It turned out that there were advertisements in the manuscript collection specific to several dresses in the Fashion Archives collection.One of Claire McCardell’s best sellers was her Popover design. It was a wrap-front dress which was easy to get into and fasten to one’s own comfort. Diane von Furstenberg is often given credit for inventing this style due to her very popular 1970s wrap dress, but McCardell’s Popover debuted in 1942. It was a big hit and continued to be part of her every collection for the next 16 years. From a 1951 advertisement in the Des Moines Register: “Have you seen . . . Claire McCardell’s new pop-over dresses in subtle plaid ginghams and cotton cord? They’re cut on the order of a brunch coat, come in small, medium and large sizes. You simply step into them, coat-fashion, and cinch up the belt to suit yourself.” [Figure 2] is a 1952 advertisement for Lord & Taylor, published in the New York World Telegram & Sun, offering the Popover for $19.95. Compare the garment on the far left in the advertisement with the white corded cotton Popover, right, [Figure 3] from the MdHS Fashion Archives.
Many of McCardell’s designs feature pleats. Toward the end of World War II, a commercial heat process was developed to permanently pleat fabric. The general public now had access to fabrics which mimicked the pleated silk Delphos gowns produced using a secret method by Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny at the beginning of the twentieth century. McCardell was quick to pick up on this new capability. An undated (probably 1950) and unidentified Maryland newspaper reports in a review of that spring’s collection, “Pleats are the main story for spring, Miss McCardell believes, and she offers them in versions never seen before . . . ‘Don’t worry about the cleaning problem,’ she assures us. ‘The pleats are permanently pressed into the fabric. They won’t come out when dipped in cleaning fluid and they do not need to be pressed separately.’”An advertisement for one of McCardell’s pleated designs made from Enka rayon appears in an unidentified and undated periodical [Figure 4]: “The Pleasure of Pleats is here discovered by Claire McCardell who, using Onondaga’s faille crêpe, Liu, woven of acetate and Enka’s magical low-filament rayon yarn, achieves this lovely fluid fashion. Sizes 8 to 16. About $70.00 / Lord & Taylor, New York / Bonwit Teller, Philadelphia / Neiman-Marcus, Dallas / I. Magnin, California-Seattle / Dayton Co., Minneapolis / American Enka Corporation / 206 Madison Avenue, New York 16, N.Y.” The same dress in black, below right [Figure 5], is part of the MdHS Fashion Archives and was worn by donor Mrs. Adrian McCardell, Jr., Claire McCardell’s sister-in-law. In an article entitled “McCardell’s Casual Clothes More Rounded Than Usual,” from an unidentified and undated newspaper, the author June Randolph, notes: “One very useful detail in the McCardell collection this year is the row of hemstitching above the hemlines of most of the pleated dresses. If the dress has to be shortened, you just snip off the piece below the hemstitching and have a finished hemline without the bother of trying to hem a pleated skirt.” This very convenient feature is obvious in the detail, below, of the above-mentioned black dress. [Figure 6]
In an era when Paris fashion dictated rigid structure and tightly cinched waists, Claire McCardell went the opposite direction. She said, “I am not in favor of any silhouette that compresses the figure, either in the waistline, hipline or the bosom. I think real fashion is always a design that lets the natural figure show to best advantage.” In 1938, she had introduced what has come to be called the Monastic, owing to its similarity to clerical cassocks. The design flowed straight from the shoulders without waist definition, and it was left to the wearer to belt wherever and as tightly as she pleased. The black dress, above, with its self-belt, follows this silhouette.
A 1994 issue of the now-defunct women’s magazine Mirabella noted in an article titled “Claire-Voyant,” that a McCardell fashion “has to be worn. On mannequins, the clothes die. . . . They die on hangers, too. . . . Everything is in the cut and deceptively simple fabrics, and nothing of their wit and freshness is revealed until the human body gives them life.” The advertisement, [Figure 7] notes, “The surprise of eggplant and rust in crinkle cotton in a dress with cross draped bodice and full, full skirt.” It was part of an article, “Claire McCardell Plays No Fashion Favorites—Sponsors Silhouette Variance, Unique Colors and Unusual Fabrics,” which appeared in the Newark Sunday Times. It went on to declare, “Claire McCardell is a free fashion thinker from the word go.” Indeed, it required some free thinking to take two partially sewn together rectangles of fabric and crisscross them over the head to achieve the dress shown here [Figure 8] from the MdHS Fashion Archives.
Several of Claire McCardell’s designs were offered as mail order patterns for the home sewer by Spadea Patterns as part of their American Designer’s series. The advertisement below appeared in an unidentified publication in 1957 [Figure 9].The dress exhibits one of McCardell’s signature design features with its sleeves cut as one piece with the bodice. This allowed for greater wearing ease without the constraint of armhole seaming. The advertisement goes on to note, “The skirt fullness springs from wide unpressed pleats that are anchored to a waist-minimizing midriff. / More of McCardell’s feeling for softness and flattery is shown in the bodice—the plunging neckline, rounded shoulders, push-up sleeves and tiny gathers under the bosom.” The same garment in the MdHS Fashion Archives, [Figure 10] is made up as recommended in a soft, lightweight wool, from Miron Woolens, according to its sewn-in label. It is not known if the donor, Catherine S. Faulds, had the dress made to order. Her letter in the acquisition files states, “I am pleased and excited to learn that my [red] dress will be in the museum collection. It was one of my special favorites purchased when Dior’s ‘New Look’ was taking over the world of fashion. So fresh and different after the War years of short skirts and Adrian’s exaggerated shoulders. I always received compliments when wearing this dress. Dress was purchased in Seattle, Washington and worn for Cocktail parties, informal dinners, dinner dancing at hotels and clubs (Yes! We did a lot of that sort of thing in those days) and luncheons.”
Indeed, countless Claire McCardell fashions were “worn for cocktail parties, informal dinners, dinner dancing at hotels and clubs and luncheons,” but they were also worn as appropriate for every facet of life. McCardell wrote in a draft memo dated December 17, 1945, “I feel today about clothes as I have always felt—that they inevitably follow the demand of the people who wear them.” To her, it was all about comfort and “common sense in clothes,”, the spirit of which she brought to life daily in her work.
For more about Claire McCardell, refer to “Claire McCardell—Maryland’s Legacy to Fashion” by Barbara Meger, Spectrum of Fashion catalogue, Maryland Historical Society (2019), available at the Museum Store and online for $35.
Barbara Meger has been a volunteer curatorial assistant for the Maryland Historical Society since 2012. An award-winning seamstress and needle artist with a passion for history and fashion, Barbara has previously shared her skills as a contributing editor to needlework publications and as a workshop teacher across the country.
 Advertisement clipping from Des Moines Register, May 27, 1951, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 3, Folder 13, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 “McCardell Does It Again,” unidentified newspaper clipping, circa 1950, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 2, Folder 6, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 Advertisement clipping from unidentified periodical, undated, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 4, Folder 1, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 June Randolph, “McCardell’s Casual Clothes More Rounded Than Usual,” unidentified periodical clipping, undated, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 2, Folder 7, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 Gaile Douglas, “Dior’s Line Not So Flat; Sweater Look End Is Near,” unidentified newspaper clipping, 1954, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 2, Folder 7, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 Mary Cantrell, “Claire-Voyant,” Mirabella, November 1994, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 3, Folder 7, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 “Claire McCardell Plays No Fashion Favorites—Sponsors Silhouette Variance, Unique Colors and Unusual Fabrics,” Newark Sunday Times, February 11, 1951, Claire McCardell Collection, MS 3066, Box 7, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 “Spadea Sewing Patterns,” Fuzzylizzie Vintage, accessed October 25, 2019, http://fuzzylizzie.com/spadea.html.
 Advertisement clipping from unidentified periodical, 1957, Claire McCardell collection, MS 3066, Box 4, Folder 1, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.
 MdHS Fashion Archives 1988.115, acquisition file.
 Memo, December 17, 1945, Claire McCardell collection, MS 3066, Box 2, Folder 3, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, MdHS.