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McCardell, Claire

designer american sportswear design

B. May 24, 1905

D. March 22, 1958

Birthplace: Frederick, Maryland

Awards: Coty Award, 1943
         Merit Award, Mademoiselle Magazine, 1944
         Dé d’Or Award (Golden Thimble), 1946
         Neiman-Marcus, Distinguished Service in Fashion, 1946
         Sports Illustrated, American Sportswear Designer, 1956
         Coty Hall of Fame, 1958

Claire McCardell was born on May 24, 1905 in Frederick, Maryland. Her father, Adrian Leroy McCardell, was the president of the Frederick County National Bank, and a state senator, and her mother, Eleanore, was born in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was raised to be a proper lady. Her mother was very in tune with American and European fashions, and she kept McCardell current by supplying her with fashion magazines. Ann Koogle, a local dressmaker, was another important influence in McCardell’s life. McCardell frequently observed Koogle as she designed and executed the technical steps that were involved in creating clothing. Her observations of this American-born dressmaker of German descent provided the foundation she needed to become a successful designer.

McCardell attended Hood College from 1923 to 1925, where she majored in home economics. Originally, she had hoped to attend the Parson School of Design in New York, but her father felt she was too young. Finally, after two years of being uninspired, she got her wish and found herself en route to New York. McCardell could not wait to start designing and sewing garments; however, she did not realize that Parson’s curriculum emphasized art over sewing. Anxious to understand garment construction, McCardell disassembled designer garments to analyze the components and construction techniques. McCardell participated in Parson’s study abroad program to complete the final two years of her education. Her experience in Paris exposed her to unique fabrics, European fashions, and couture collections, of which her favorite was Vionnet.

Upon graduation McCardell took odd jobs until she landed her first full-fledged design position in 1929 with Robert Turk, an independent sportswear designer. She was employed with Mr. Turk for two years when he was appointed head designer at Townley Frocks. McCardell followed Turk to Townley Frocks as an assistant designer where she assumed the role of head designer after Turk’s death in 1932. McCardell had a realistic, practical philosophy for clothing design; she felt that women should look good and at the same time feel comfortable.

McCardell’s first success was in 1938 with the bias-cut, no-waist, free-flowing “Monastic Dress.” Unfortunately, a lack of financial backing forced Townley Frocks to close its doors. McCardell immediately moved into a position with Hattie Carnegie designing clothes for socialites, but she did not receive recognition for her designs. She continued working for Carnegie until 1940 when Townley Frocks reopened under the ownership of Adolph Klein, who asked McCardell to return as head designer. McCardell agreed to take the position under one condition: that she could design under her own name.

McCardell felt that when a woman worked in the kitchen and garden she should not sacrifice appearance for comfort. Her practical yet intricate clothing was affordable to the average American woman. One dress which embodied the spirit of the American working women was the “pop-over dress.” This work dress was originally fabricated from denim as a wraparound, loose silhouette with rolled-up sleeves, large utilitarian pockets, and detachable pot holders. This attractive, durable, and functional dress became the uniform of the American working woman during World War II.

McCardell played a large role in the development of women’s active wear. She developed wool jersey and cotton sportswear ensembles for activities such as skiing, bicycling, swimming, and tennis. Her interest in sportswear design began in her youth when she participated in sports with her brothers and recognized the distinct lack of proper athletic attire for women. McCardell’s sportswear designs followed the same philosophy as her dress designs: clothing should be comfortable and attractive. Other signature looks the designer developed include halter top dresses, leotards, and play clothes for women and children which featured spaghetti straps, cinch belts, and sashes in leather, cotton, and jersey. She also contracted Capezio shoes to manufacture a line of ballet slippers in fabrics that coordinated with her dresses.

McCardell shaped the face of modern women’s sportswear. Her ability to understand the needs of the average American woman earned her the honor of appearing on the 1943 cover of Life magazine, one of only three designers ever to achieve this distinction. She took pride in her designs and generously shared them with fresh inquisitive minds. McCardell continued to design until her death in 1958, at which time her contributions to American sportswear history were recognized with a posthumous induction into the Coty Hall of Fame.

McClellan, George Marion(1860–1934) - Writer, poet, minister, Writing Career, Chronology [next] [back] McBay, Henry C.(1914–1995) - Scientist, chemist, Graduates from Wiley College and Atlanta University, Chronology, Works at Morehouse College

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