About Claire McCardell
Born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1905, Claire McCardell attended Hood College for two years. In 1926, she pursued her dream of a fashion design career by enrolling in what is today the Parsons School of Design in New York to study costume illustration and construction. Following a year of study in Paris, Claire returned to New York, graduating from Parsons in 1928. After working at tedious jobs on the fringes of New York fashion, she found a home with Townley Frocks. There, she rose to prominence as a designer for Townley Frocks and its successor design house, Adolph Klein, where she worked until her death in 1958.
The American Look Unlike most designers of her time, Claire cast off the formality of French fashion, focusing instead on creating stylish wearable clothing for the active, independent modern American woman. In time, her approach to fashion became known as “the American Look,” marked by comfort, practicality, and understated style. As she put it: “Clothes are for real live women . . . They are made to be worn, to be lived in.”
Claire employed common, easy-care fabrics such as denim, calico, corduroy, men’s suit and shirt fabrics, and stretch jerseys. Her signature looks included the unstructured, tent-like Monastic Dress that could be self-styled with a belt or sash, backless halter sundresses, collections of coordinated separates, wrap dresses, pedal pushers, colorful plaid cotton shirtwaists, men’s look trousers and jackets in grey flannel, and revealing bathing suits and rompers. Fashion historian Julie Eilber notes that though Claire’s designs were simple in concept, her draping skills and keen eye turned common-place fabrics into “alluring, body-conscious, and feminine fashions that always had a hint of sex.”
Claire’s collection included jewelry, sunglasses, and footwear. Never a fan of high heels, she partnered with Capezio, the manufacturer of ballet shoes, to introduce the still-popular “ballet flat” to American women.
Recognition Claire won the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1943, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1955, and was named one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine in 1999. She has influenced countless contemporary designers, among them Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi and Calvin Klein.
Prominent Collections Examples of Claire’s garments can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Smithsonian Institution. Retrospective exhibitions including her work have been launched at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (1998) and the Museum of Modern Art (2017). Closer to home are collections at Heritage Frederick and the Maryland Historical Society.
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