McCardell makes a nice complement to Anna Jenness Miller, the dress reform advocate profiled last week in this space. Like Jenness Miller, she was not content to toe the party line, or sew the party line.
As writer Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson put it in a 2018 Washington Post Magazine story about the designer: “McCardell’s creations contained an alchemy that so many of us still seek: the ability to command the narrative of our own bodies, and to be seen not as mere eye candy but as a person to be reckoned with.”
McCardell was born in 1905 to a Southern belle mother and a bank executive father. She was the oldest of four and the only girl. She played with her brothers. The joy that comes from being able to run and move unencumbered must have come to her then, along with the despair that comes when that freedom is gone.
She wanted to study fashion, but her father insisted she study home economics at Hood College. After a year, she convinced her parents to let her go to the Parsons School of Design in New York. From there, she was off to Paris, where she bought designer clothing to take apart, studying how it was put together.
And how was it put together? With not enough thought given to how women actually lived. “I do not like glitter,” McCardell later said. “I like comfort in the rain, in the sun, comfort for active sports, comfort for sitting still and looking pretty. Clothes should be useful.”
In 1938, McCardell was back in New York, working for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks. The origin story of her fame comes from what reportedly happened one August day that year in a Townley Frocks showroom: She nearly knocked down a buyer from a retail store while walking across the room.
As Evitts Dickinson wrote, “That day, McCardell was clad in a dress that she had sewn: a red wool shift with no padded shoulders or darts, and no sewn-in waist to structure the body into the idealized hourglass silhouette.”
The buyer found that dress more interesting than anything else in the Townley Frocks collection and bought it off McCardell’s back to put into production. Because of its cassock-like simplicity, the dress became known as the “monastic.”
It was a ready-to-wear dress that looked good on anyone and could be accessorized with a belt at the waist. In 1942, McCardell unveiled her “popover” denim wraparound. Wrote the New York Times: “Women could do their own housework in it and still look smart.”
Other McCardell innovations included denim stitching, trouser pleats, separates and zippers on the sides of skirts. When leather was rationed during the war, she partnered with Capezio on a line of ballet flats, moving them from the barre to the street.
Wrote Evitts Dickinson: “The 1940s became the decade of the McCardell woman, clad in casual jersey, wearing wrap dresses or pantsuits with pockets, going braless, maybe, and heelless, and feeling confident in her stylish attire.”
In 1944, McCardell won the Coty Fashion Award. Two years later, she won the Best Sportswear Designer Award. Her ethos continues to live on, most recently in a $898 cotton poplin dress from designer Tory Burch which has “a timeless shape designed to have a modern attitude and movement.”
McCardell died of cancer in 1958 at age 52. A few years ago, the Frederick Art Club, founded in 1897 by a group of female artists, art students and art lovers, was searching for a woman to honor. Club members wanted to “break the bronze ceiling,” helping correct the paucity of statues devoted to women. In a presentation, the local historical society made the case for McCardell.
“We were blown away,” said Linda Moran, chair of what became the Claire McCardell Project. “We just went, ‘Holy cow, this is our person.’”
The club commissioned a statue from Sarah Hempel Irani, a Frederick sculptor who did her own deep dive into McCardell’s life. “I make friends with dead people,” Hempel Irani told Answer Man. “I have to spend time with them to get a likeness.”
Hempel Irani does a lot of religious work, including statues of saints. “Every saint has an attribute, something that shows who that saint is,” she said. “It is a visual language, like a code. When you see the guy with the keys, you know it is Saint Peter.”
What would McCardell’s attribute be? Hempel Irani toyed with scissors, before remembering a favorite photo of the designer, posed with fabric arranged on a dress form.
She bought a vintage dress form from an antique store and asked her longtime model, Dakota Lee, “the Virgin Mary in another sculpture,” to play around with it. “She threw her arm over it and slumped down to a classic fashion pose. I was like, ‘Don’t move! This is amazing.’”
The 7 ½-foot bronze sculpture was unveiled at the east end of Carroll Creek Park in Frederick on Oct. 17, 2021. Said Hempel Irani: “I wore a denim dress with pockets, belted at the waist.”