Monday, January 14, 2013

Claire McCardell - The American Look

When I first started working at Playclothes in California, I had little knowledge of many designers in vintage history.  Of course, I knew the big names that are still around today, but little about those who had come and gone.

I still remember the day Phyllis, the manager of Playclothes, began going on and on about this Claire McCardell dress we had just gotten into the shop.  I couldn't understand why she was so impressed, it was just a simple, black frock.  She seemed slightly offended my ignorance and gave me a history lecture right there on the spot.  Since, I have never forgotten what she told me and have sought out the label in my own vintage travels.

If you are just as ignorant about this wonderful vintage designer as I was, Claire McCardell was one of the most influential designers to American women's wear and was dubbed as the creator of the "American Look." Her simple, yet elegant, looks were designed for the everyday woman and meant to be comfortable and practical.  She shunned the French influence on American fashion, and instead focused on what women wanted, generally drafting ideas that fit her own needs and concerns with fashion.  Through twenty years of work, Claire McCardell reinvented the wheel, so to say, of women's fashion, incorporating easy-care fabrics, the idea of separates, and the body over undergarments to create form.

Educated at the-now Parsons with a degree in costume design, McCardell's fashion career began and ended at Townley Frocks, with short stints at other companies when Townley Frocks closed for a few years.  During her time at Townley Frocks, she created numerous functional and sophisticated designs, her first being a tent-style dress called the Monastic which could be worn with or without a belt to give the wearer a form, and her next being a wrap-around dress that could be put over anything from a bathing suit to a housedress to a party dress called the Popover.  Her designs were innovative and relied on bias cuts and fabric draping to give them elegance, as well as the idea of clothing as separates.  Most importantly, however, they were versatile and comfortable and catered to the needs of every woman.

When World War Two came about and fabric was heavily rationed, McCardell very much embraced the use of natural-fiber fabrics, such as cotton and wool, and used them not just for day, but for evening and formal wear, as well.  She also started a craze of ballet slippers worn as shoes, sometimes covering them in matching fabric to the dress in her runway shows.  Her designs were frugal, using little fabric, but still fabulous, so much so that by the late 40s, she was Lord and Taylor's number one selling ready-to-wear designer.

The versatility and comfortability of her designs were not just due to the fabric used, but to the structure of her garments, as well.  Her designs relied more on the body's natural shape than an undergarment's shape to the body.  She used the fabric, cutting on a bias, to give shape to the bust and used the cut of the sleeves, rather than a shoulder pad, to give definition.  Her clothes were designed to give ease to the wearer not irritation.

Though her life was cut short due to cancer, Claire McCardell managed to create many essential looks to American fashion that are still present today.  Her versatility with design, fabric, and shape defined the American Look of the time, and those elements of design make her one of the most influential designers of the times.

Now, you've been educated.

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