Tory Burch sheds light on forgotten pioneering American fashion design

Before there was Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang or Tory Burch, there was Claire McCardell.

McCardell, who was born in 1905 and began designing clothes when she was in her twenties, helped define American fashion as we know it. In her day, American seamstresses sought inspiration from the rising cadre of European fashion designers, but McCardell was not interested in making luxurious dresses for the upper crust. Instead, she wanted to create clothes that busy women could wear every day. She also had a knack for clever innovations like pockets, ballet flats, and waistless dresses that could fit different body sizes.

Claire McCardell in one of his own designs [Photo: Maryland Center for History and Culture, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Claire McCardell Photograph Collection/courtesy Tory Burch]

Unlike iconic designers of the time, such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, McCardell’s name has been largely forgotten. Few people realize that many of the clothes we wear every day can be traced back to designs she created. Tory Burch wants to change that. The American designer uses her influence to highlight that of McCardell.

[Photo: courtesy Tory Burch]

Burch wrote McCardell’s foreword newly reissued book, What should I wear?, which was originally published in 1956. She established a scholarship dedicated to McCardell’s work at the Maryland Center for History and Culture (MCHC), which houses one of the largest collections of his pieces. She also created an entire Spring/Summer 2022 collection inspired by McCardell, notably by reproducing two of his creations.

Burch first met McCardell in an art history class when she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Even then, Burch was shocked at how few people knew her. “It’s another example of how women have been overlooked in history,” she says. “So many women’s contributions have not been properly documented, and little girls don’t have the role models they should have. I think that’s something we need to change collectively.

McCardell, behind a rack of dresses, with a model; unknown photographer, 1950s. [Photo: Maryland Center for History and Culture, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Claire McCardell Photograph Collection/courtesy Tory Burch]

Eventually, Burch pursued a career in fashion, launching her own label in 2004. Designing collections, she began to see how McCardell’s work continues to influence American fashion. “She borrowed from menswear and workwear,” says Burch. “She used unconventional fabrics, like denim and jersey. And she invented new ways of seeing clothes, reducing them, cutting them in new ways. I don’t know a single designer who isn’t inspired by her.

Left to right: Red and black plaid wool dress with commercially pleated fabric and monastic silhouette with belt, triangular collar and three-quarter gathered sleeves, designed by Claire McCardell, 1948. Pale pink silk-faille evening dress designed by Claire McCardell, 1940s. Green and black checkered cotton “Popover” dress, with self-fabric belt and button fastening, designed by Claire McCardell in the 1950s. [Photo: Maryland Center for History and Culture/courtesy Tory Burch]

In the 1930s and 1940s, women were encumbered by their clothes; many still wore corsets, Burch points out. But McCardell wanted to design clothes that would allow women to live full and active lives. She had been fascinated by fashion since she was a child in Maryland. She moved to New York to attend the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, now known as Parsons School of Design, then attended a Paris branch of the school. While many of McCardell’s peers were drawn to the art of French haute couture, McCardell wanted to combine elegance and functionality: she wanted to create pieces that would allow women to move freely.

A few years after graduating, she landed a job as an assistant to designer Robert Turk in 1930. When he started designing for the Townley Frocks clothing company, he brought McCardell with him. But in 1932 Turk died in a drowning accident and McCardell was asked to complete his fall collection. Within a few years, she became the brand’s best-known designer, with her name appearing on clothing labels. McCardell chose to spend his career designing affordable, mainstream clothing rather than luxury clothing. Most of her outfits cost the equivalent of $100 in today’s currency.

Monastic Pumpkin and Black Rayon Faille Trapeze Style
dress fitted with a matching belt in leather and fabric; Claire McCardell clothing by Townley, 1950s. [Photo: courtesy Tory Burch]

One of his first pieces from 1938, the monastic robe, was a dress with no defined waistline that came with a belt, which meant women could wear it comfortably even as their bodies changed over time. The Slip Dress, perhaps her most famous piece, was a wrap dress designed in 1942 to be worn from the kitchen to a dinner party. It contained a large pocket, a rarity then (and now), in which some women wore an oven mitt.

And she actually invented the ballerina. She approached ballet brand Capezio to redesign a pointe shoe with a durable sole that a woman could wear around town more comfortably than the heels that were common at the time. “She was a feminist,” Burch says. “She was driven by the concept of giving freedom to women; men didn’t have to deal with these issues, so why should women? »

There is no single reason why McCardell has faded from our collective memory. One of them could be that McCardell died of colon cancer at the age of 52, Burch posits, meaning she died at the height of her career and didn’t have time. to solidify his legacy. There is also the fact that after his death, his family immediately shut down their label rather than bringing in another designer as European fashion houses have done.

Burch thinks we now have the opportunity to remember McCardell and honor his work. On the one hand, she wants researchers and designers to exploit the archives of her work, which is why she is sponsoring a grant that will allow a fashion specialist to organize an exhibition on her. Burch herself spent hours at the MCHC, poring over McCardell’s correspondence with famous designers and artists of the time, from Picasso to Yves Saint Laurent. “You start to see the overall impact that she had,” Burch says.

Burch also studied clothing designed by McCardell. “There aren’t many dresses left because the women wore his dresses,” Burch says. “That’s a lesson in itself. Today, women want dresses that last, have integrity and are of high quality. McCardell showed us how to do this.

The Spring Summer 2022 collection from Tory Burch, inspired by Claire McCardell. [Photo: courtesy Tory Burch]

But Burch thinks designers like her can play a role in highlighting McCardell’s influence and legacy in their own work. In designing each piece in her McCardell-inspired collection, Burch drew both aesthetically and functionally from McCardell’s work. Instead of sewn waists, Burch defined waists on outfits with sashes, sashes, and headbands, which created balanced proportions with full skirts and relaxed pants. She created exact replicas of two pairs of shoes designed by McCardell, the flat she created with Capezio in 1953 and a striped silk and cotton boot.

The Claire McCardell dress. [Photo: courtesy Tory Burch]

One of Burch’s favorite pieces in the collection is called the Claire McCardell dress. It’s made from cotton that features pleats from the shoulder to the hem, allowing the wearer to move comfortably, and has side pockets. It’s both functional and beautiful, and looks surprisingly similar to many of McCardell’s iconic dresses, even though it looks modern. “People are extremely visual,” says Burch. “A way to preserve [McCardell’s] legacy is in showing them what she has done. Her clothes are timeless.

Joseph E. Golightly