Before Donna Karan, there was Claire McCardell who paved the way to relaxed, chic, and American fashion. She was a visionary designer with a distinct style, who experimented with different fabrics and encouraged women to dress more freely in the postwar era. Her style coincided with the rise of the ready-to-wear market that would come to define American fashion. She helped craft a sartorial philosophy in favor of a long-lasting, versatile, and attractive wardrobe. The urban pace of 1920s America, the advent of modern dance, and the broadening approval of feminine athleticism helped set the stage for McCardell’s functional yet stylish American look.
Leisurewear by Claire McCardell. Photo source: Met Museum
Born in Maryland, to a southern-belle mother and a banker father, Claire McCardell was a self-confessed tomboy who applied the principles of fitness and sports to her design approach. She attended Parsons School of Design and specialized in illustration, and in her second year, she came to the school’s Paris branch. When she returned to New York, she worked with the designer Robert Turk and worked briefly with Hattie Carnegie as well.
When Claire McCardell started working with other American fashion designers, after her graduation, she was opposed to the fact of copying Parisian designers’ work, which was a very common approach at the time. After stints with Robert Turk and Hattie Carnegie, she decided to launch her own line of fashion separates, which was a new phenomenon. She blurred boundaries between high-end fashion and everyday wear and is one of the first designers to do so. She had an innovative and completely unique way of designing fashion and had a very pragmatic approach, where women should move freely in their clothes. She is considered a precursor to Donna Karan, who will also emphasize ease of wear and practicality in fashion. In 1942, McCardell will become an established designer who sold more than 75.000 pieces of her denim Popover dress and earned the praise of fashion insiders. She will come to define the post-war era of American fashion and encourage women to dress more freely.
The Popover dress. Photo source: The Met
Key Success Factors:
Her groundbreaking approach was adding functionality and practicality to fashion. She was pragmatic and had a keen eye for what women wanted. She was influenced by Madeleine Vionnet, and Claire McCardell will come to influence many other designers, many of whom she mentored under her fashion business. She is credited with creating an all-American wardrobe and style, and her key success factor was creating clothes that she would like to wear.