Teaching from the Collections: Part 3, Claire McCardell

A month ago, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson wrote an excellent article for The Washington Post, “A Dress for Everyone” (December 12, 2018), which was forwarded to me by multiple friends and colleagues.  Outside of fashion circles, Claire McCardell (1905-1958), is an unsung hero of 20th century American sportswear design.  Evitts Dickson’s article did the designer justice as it described McCardell’s life and career in response to last spring’s Met exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination in which a McCardell Monastic dress was on exhibit (click here for an example from The Met).

Last spring, I, too, was consumed with Claire McCardell as I prepared for our fall exhibition, Teaching from the Collections (October 6 to December 16, 2018).  McCardell was one of our three featured designers, which also included Geoffrey Beene and Bonnie Cashin.  In August I wrote about exhibition preparations and a treatment I did on one of our prized Bonnie Cashin pieces.  Then in November, I addressed some of the challenges we faced in creating an exhibition app.  In case you missed the exhibition or just want to learn more after reading The Washington Post piece, check out the Claire McCardell objects from our collection featured in the exhibition.

McCardell wool three-piece suit

Wool three-piece suit by Claire McCardell, 1960s
Photograph by Aurora Thomas-Hagerman (Digital Filmmaking, Stephens College, 2022)


Throughout the mid-twentieth century, when many designers were creating highly structured and restrictive garments, McCardell sought to create youthful, simple, figure-flattering clothes that were comfortable, practical, and easy to care for.  A skier and active outdoors type, Claire McCardell designed clothes to suit her own lifestyle and became a pioneer for fashion-forward American sportswear.

Though she had spent time in France, McCardell was uninspired by the highly constructed and often uncomfortable French fashions that were popular at the time.  Top model Suzy Parker once commented that McCardell’s clothes were “refreshingly ‘unFrench’.”  Though her name is not often remembered outside the fashion industry, McCardell is considered one of the most influential women’s sportswear designers of the twentieth century.

The skirt here has a waistband with yoke, allowing it to be fitted at the top with fullness below.  Pockets keep the skirt practical.

The matching fitted top is bias-cut with a side zipper closure.  Overall the ensemble manages to be in step with desired silhouettes without the restrictions of corseting, girdles, and petticoats.

McCardell playsuit ensemble

Plaid cotton playsuit with matching skirt by Claire McCardell, 1950s.  Gift of Mary Jo Clayton.  2011.19.1a-c
Photograph by Aurora Thomas-Hagerman (Digital Filmmaking, Stephens College, 2022)


Claire McCardell was known for “capsule dressing,” where four or five sportswear separates could be mixed and matched to accommodate travel and an active lifestyle.  In the red, white, and blue ensemble seen here, she uses simple plaid cotton fabric and creates visual interest with a bias-cut playsuit.  The playsuit itself has echoes of the one-piece, belted, so-called diaper swimsuits McCardell designed in the 1940s and 1950s (click here for an example of a 1952 swimsuit in the collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Other of her design hallmarks seen here include a self-tie sash belt, large hook-and-eye closures at the shoulders, and a one-piece playsuit with bloomer legs.

McCardell shirtwaist dress

Cotton shirtwaist dress by Claire McCardell, 1950s.  75-067
Photograph by Aurora Thomas-Hagerman (Digital Filmmaking, Stephens College, 2022)


During World War II, Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Diana Vreeland posed a challenge to McCardell: design a stylish, affordable dress for busy housewives and mothers.  McCardell’s solution was a $6.95 dress called the Pop-over, which had a large, useful pocket and an attached oven mitt (see here, at The Met).

In addition to the 1938 Monastic dress that first made her famous, the designer was well-known for her self-tying shirtwaist dresses cut from men’s shirting fabrics.  Like the other designers featured in Teaching from the Collections, McCardell enjoyed giving her wearers pockets.  This particular dress has an enduring stylishness that makes it wearable even today as it requires no 1950s girdle or petticoats to flatter the body.



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