Sunday, May 24, 2009

Claire McCardell, always new

Claire McCardell

About 10 years ago, discovering vintage fashion designers, I fell head-over-heels for Claire McCardell. What woman wouldn't?

Born on May 24, 1905 Claire McCardell first became interested in style at an early age, cutting out images from her mother's fashion magazines as paper dolls. Even more presciently, she felt unable to do what her brother did in the outfits she was expected to wear. She graduated from Parsons in 1928, and held a series of positions with Townley Frocks, Hattie Carnegie and Win-Sum, before she returned to the reopened Townley in 1940.

World War II actually opened the package which was McCardell's gift to women. No longer was American fashion tied so heavily to more expensive and restrictive French fashion.* The entire idea of American design suddenly took on a new significance which McCardell most eloquently expressed. She is now considered the mother of American sportswear, combining style and functional wearability. She designed ski and golf togs, as well as office and wedding dresses...creating for the gamut of the modern American woman's life.

Evening sweater and rayon satin skirt, Rawlings/Vogue 1945

A showing of McCardell designs presented at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, in 1972 reintroduced the designer to the public. "By any yardstick," declared Newsweek on June 5 of that year, "it was the smash fashion collection of the season."

Life magazine, in 1990, named her one of the 100 most important Americans of the twentieth century.

On the occasion of the 1998 Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition of Claire McCardell's clothing, Constance C.R. White wrote in the New York Times:

From the 1930s through 50s, McCardell's casual, modern clothes urged women toward greater freedom and flexibility in fashion and promoted an aesthetic that Americans can now claim as their own. Through McCardell, fashion kept abreast of changes like jazz, realism, women's war-time emancipation and an optimistic postwar nationalism. ''We look at her as the founder of democratic American fashion,'' Ms. Steele [Valerie Steele, the chief curator at the F.I.T. museum at the time of this exhibit] said.

Timeless is so often used to describe Claire McCardell's work, literally transcending the over 50 years since her death, but her continuing influence and power is a combination of interwoven elements:

1. Timeless design, literally difficult to date. Would you guess that this unrestrictive dress dates from 1945? Her work in the 40s is astonishingly modern.

Dahl-Wolfe/Harper's Bazaar, reprinted in The Fashion Book

2. Responsible (even frugal) use of materials. When war rationing took effect, McCardell is said to have done little different, as she always oriented to humbler materials and a relative lack of extravagance, like wool for swimsuits, cotton and wool for evening wear.

3. Sensitivity to the many roles of women. As the description of one sundress in the Met Museum collection succinctly states: "McCardell designed for herself, but the truth is that the transformative possibilities of her clothing allow for one modern woman and thereby for every modern woman."

Met Museum photo of 1956 sundress

4. Flexibility of fit. Much of her clothing was truly ready to wear, contingent on the wearer and adaptable in size. Arguably McCardell's most iconic fashion was the monastic dress of 1938. With no fitted waist seam a woman was to use McCardell's signature spaghetti ties to create the waistline. She explored this concept for years, including this 1949 incarnation

Horst/Vogue, reprinted in New York Fashion, The Evolution of American Style

and even this 1950 bathing suit, which feels monastic in influence.

Detail of photo by Dahl-Wolfe/Harper's Bazaar, reprinted in Louise Dahl-Wolfe

5. Reasonable, even inexpensive prices. Her 1942 popover dress with attached oven mitt sold in the thousands for $6.95 while Norells, Mainbochers and Hattie Carnegies ran in the hundreds of dollars. She adroitly took advantage of American mass production capability.

Met Museum photo

6. Applying real design know-how to clothing for sports. These WWII-era bathing suits show the freedom that McCardell was bringing to a formerly (and even for years later) restrictive woman's garment.

Stunning images of 40s swimwear by McCardell are shown in this GlamourSplash blog.

Bicycling outfit, ca. 1940

7. Adventure. How else to describe denim or men's shirting used for evening wear? Her use of wool for evening became an American design phenomenon. What about the freedom to roam in ballet slippers, as she promoted in 1944?

Wool jersey dress/American Fabrics, Summer 1952

1955 silk and cotton faille evening dress/FIT collection

8. Versatility. Clothing designed for work had the flexibility and charm to be worn after work. Designs were not anchored to only one event in a woman's life. As early as 1934, McCardell was creating mix-and-match separates.

A McCardell "work suit" in silk, dating from the 1950s, which I sold several years ago

9. Originality. Some of her original ideas included pedal-pushers, bareback summer dresses, and strapless swimsuits, along with the use of common materials for evening wear. In her 1955 book What Shall I Wear? McCardell herself observed: ''Most of my ideas seem startlingly self-evident. I wonder why I didn't think of them before"...but no one else did either!

10. Function and style. McCardell is considered in the same league as Frank Lloyd Wright, an American designer who created pieces largely shaped around the lifestyles that included them. Since I will most likely never afford a house by Wright, I plan to keep this McCardell dress and bolero as a timeless piece of American history!

1950s dress and bolero in navy silk shantung with white shantung lining

Claire McCardell died far too young, in 1958, of cancer. She was still at the height of her career, and one can only imagine what more she would have accomplished. Nonetheless, her work lives in modern American sportswear design. It is hard to imagine where American fashion design would be without her.

For further online reading: Time magazine, May 2, 1955 "The American Look"; "Claire McCardell" by Fuzzie Lizzie Vintage Clothing; "Celebrating Claire McCardell", New York Times, November 17, 1998

*It is interesting to note that McCardell collected the work of Madeleine Vionnet, whose influence is seen in her design techniques, particularly involving wrapping, draping, and bias-cut fabric. In many ways, she became the direct descendant of the French designer's aesthetic, when many new French designers had taken a turn in direction.

Met Museum photo of a 1939 McCardell evening gown

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Style ideas from my parents

I have had a lovely and touching response to my recent blog about my mother, both on Blogger and on Facebook. One thing I didn't mention about her, although I hinted at it with the line "she was different from me in many ways" is that she really wasn't terribly into fashion. Conversely, my father (about whom I wrote last year) was very much a clotheshorse.

Since I have made a career of clothing, I guess I lean toward my father in that way, but both my parents influenced me greatly in my own style. Since I feel I am a bit unusual having parents that were of such a different era, I thought I'd share with you some of the style secrets of the Wilds household, some from my mother, some from my father, some both.

1. Invest in a few good things, rather than many inexpensive things.

2. Emphasize what is best about your appearance even if doing so runs counter to current trends.

Mama always tended to highlight her waist

3. Have some jewelry that matches your eyes.

My mother's sapphire blue ring, made "to match her eyes" by a grateful
man that my grandfather had assisted in finding work

4. Wear classic takes on current trends.

5. Tartans are good.

Papa in a tartan shirt

6. Honor the people who give you clothing or accessories by wearing their gifts when you meet with them.

7. Dresses/skirts are more comfortable and flattering than pants.

Mama with their beloved dog Cappy

8. Find a favorite fragrance and stick with it, likewise lip color. My mother's signatures were Woodhue Cologne by Faberge and Cherries in the Snow lipstick by Revlon. Timeless they are indeed, with both still available (Woodhue reissued at The Vermont Country Store and Cherries at most any drugstore).

9. Learn to take care of things yourself, including cleaning, mending and ironing. Enjoy these tasks as an investment in yourself and your loved ones.

Mama ironing

10. Natural fibers are greatly to be preferred to man-made.

My parents in sweaters

11. To get just what you want, learn to sew (knit, crochet) your own clothing.

My mother's Singer Featherweight of my most cherished possessions.

12. Get to know fabrics so you can make good decisions about what you like to wear, how to clean the fabric and what it is like to sew. (I can recommend The All About series, All About Wool, All About Silk and All About Cotton. Although pricey, these are an invaluable starting place for understanding basic fabrics. These books include fabric swatches...a huge bonus!)

13. Always have a cleaned and pressed white shirt ready to go.

My father in a perfectly pressed white shirt

14. Wear gloves.

15. Have things altered or tailored to suit you (or learn to do it yourself), don't just accept shoddy fit.

16. "Handsome" clothing can be more flattering to a woman than something ultra-feminine and frilly.

Mama in a trenchcoat

17. Learn interesting ways to tie scarves. (Find some suggestions here.)

18. Even for casual occasions, dress with style.

Papa at a picnic...

...and with my brother at the beach

19. Dress appropriately, but individualistically. Don't be afraid to express yourself.

Papa in white, ca. 1930

20. 2nd hand clothing can be your best bet for quality, style and affordability. (I certainly took that advice to heart!)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Flowers for my mother

I know a lot of people say this, but sorry, I really am the one who had the best mother least that's how it seems to me. She was different from me in many ways, and in so many ways I learned and got to be a better person because of her. Not a single day goes by that I don't think of her. I strive to do things as she would do them. Most every day I miss her and wish I had new times with her.

Marian Enid L. was born September 28, 1920 in the small town of Grimes, Iowa. Her father was a banker during The Depression, and it had to have had quite an impact on Mama that her father worked to keep farmers in business, and keep their farms operating. Eventually he was let go for not foreclosing as expected by his overseers.

Mama at age 6

My mother always looked out for the less fortunate. She was the most open- and fair-minded person I have known personally. She did not apparently see race, class or gender as anything other than man-made obstacle or advantage, although she always looked after the underdog. Many mothers are naturally nurturing to their own children, but my mother had nurturing feelings--and took action on those feelings--for the entire world.

At Mama's memorial service in 1988, there were many young people of all races and walks of life who considered my mother their honorary mother. She counseled, she listened, she advised, she taught, she made people feel welcome and special. She found people who needed her, and they found her.

Mama baked bread. She baked literally dozens of loaves per week and gave away much of it to neighbors, friends, and fellow office workers. The entire neighborhood smelled like a bakery on Saturdays. When she went to work on Mondays, she carried two big shopping bags full of bread on the bus. (My mother didn't drive and was an intrepid mass transit user in Seattle where I grew up.)

Mama devised a recipe for bread that would offer as much protein as an egg in just one slice. She wanted to see this recipe be used to help feed people in need, as she figured it was about 7 cents per loaf to make. Her bread, and all her cooking, was unbelievably delicious.

Serving dinner to my father and his mother

My mother was adventuresome in her cooking, trying all kinds of new, good things. She remembered vividly the evening in the 1940s when she first ate garlic, and she was the first person to try many things at home. She read, watched and tried what Julia Child recommended. She was friends with the fish monger. She made a huge assortment of Christmas cookies each year, and made the most spectacular dinners any person could be privileged to eat. I created a cookbook of her recipes when she died, as I knew this aspect of my mother's life was most tangible and cherished, and would be greatly missed.

Serving food at a friend's wedding in about 1981

I learned to do so many practical things because my mother took the time to teach me to do them: I learned to cook of course, and to sew, and to garden. With her college degree in romance languages she helped me learn French, and as a top math and science student...well I needed all the help I could get! My mother was extremely smart.

Knitting... (ca. 1950)

...and gardening (1961)

She didn't have fancy taste in many things, but she had refined taste in music and literature. She played cello through college. She was a devoted reader and history was her favorite subject. Lincoln and Jefferson were her favorite historical figures, and she read and re-read Churchill's writings. My mother avidly recycled, but before she let a single newspaper go she made sure she had read every word of it. She was unafraid to be political, and caucused for her candidates, went door-to-door for causes and talked to friends, as well as those in disagreement with her. She insisted I take issues to heart, to others and to the street. She was brave and strong in her convictions.

My mother didn't swat bees, but carried them out of the house by their wings. She once went a few days with a broken arm without going to a doctor, because "it just didn't hurt that much."

My mother loved to have fun too. She loved movies, games, laughing. Her laughter took over her entire body, with tears streaming down her reddening face. Even though she was older (40 when I was born) she was a lot of fun for me and my brother, always taking us to parades, the zoo, the park, movies--she put up with 7 showings of Mary Poppins for me. She always bought us balloons and cotton candy.

After my father died in 1974, my mother had to go back to work, and reentering the work force at the age of 54 could not have been easy. She not only found work at a law office, but became invaluable, a paralegal in all but title and salary. During the last year of her life, when she could no longer make it to work, office staff came to her home to get help managing the business. She didn't make a lot of money, but when I was choosing a college she said to go where I most wanted to go, and we would make it work. My mother said "money isn't the only currency."

On the last Mother's Day Mama was alive, we went to a garden center where I bought the annuals she picked out, later to put them in the dirt around her duplex. If it weren't for the shopping cart, she couldn't have walked, as she had some serious health issues. Still, as usual, she didn't complain at all, and spent the time telling strangers what great children she had. She said what she always said, "Mother's Day is the day that I am most thankful for having such wonderful children."

The feeling is mutual Mama! I love you so much.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May flower power!

It's time for my May theme, Flower Power...please come visit (sound up!)

A few flowery choices from my new web store:

Stunning cotton print dress by Kahana Manufacturing Co. - Honolulu

Intricately hand decorated lambswool/angora sweater labeled Lorine

and a bouquet over in my eBay store:

50s cotton dress...this one only available through this evening, May 5

Long halter dress of bright cotton barkcloth

80s bubble-hem sundress

(You grow girl!)