Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Claire McCardell, still fresh at 111

MCardell wearing her “Future Dress”—1945

When I started 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 unwrapped 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.

McCardell evening sweater and rayon satin skirt, Rawlings/Vogue 1945

A 1972 showing of McCardell designs presented at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 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 20th 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 from the 40s is astonishingly modern.

Dahl-Wolfe/Harper’s Bazaar

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.

McCardell wool dress and bathing suit, both c.1945/Met Museum photos

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.”

Sports clothes changed our lives because they changed our thinking about clothes. Perhaps they, more than anything else, made us independent women. In the days of dependent women – fainting women, delicate flowers, laced to breathless beauty – a girl couldn’t cross the street without help. Her mission in life was to look beautiful and seductive while the men took care of the world’s problems. Today women can share the problems (and possibly help with them) because of their new-found freedom.
– Claire McCardell, in an essay for Sports Illustrated, 1955

Claire McCardell sits in the middle with models wearing her sportswear, 1954—Mark Shaw photo

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—


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

Detail of photo by Dahl-Wolfe/Harper's Bazaar

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 1940s bathing suits show the freedom that McCardell was bringing to a formerly (and even for years later) restrictive woman’s garment.

Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times

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?

McCardell wool dress, 1948/Met Museum photo

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, denisebrain photo

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!

McCardell bathing suit, John Rawlings photo, 1950

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, denisebrain photos

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.

*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.

[This is a repost, with a few changes, of a blog I wrote in 2009. I had just been on a long bicycle ride in honor of Claire McCardell’s birthday. I might do that again today...it seems a fitting tribute!]

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother's Day

A couple of years ago I photographed a 1940s dress inspired by one of my favorite photos of my mother dating from the 1940s.

Can you see why I like vintage fashion so much?

One more image of my mother, when she was a blonde six-year old in 1926. The sweet photo of her inspired Anna Davies to do this illustration, which of course I had to have!

Some other posts about my mother:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Get the Look: Elsa Schiaparelli

Wit, innovation, transformation, freedom, defiance, chic—and shock. How many of us would dare to take fashion inspiration from the most iconoclastic of designers?

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890. A defiant girl from the start, she ran away from home at the age of six only to be found several days later, at the head of a parade. When she was 21, Schiaparelli wrote a book of erotic poetry, shocking her aristocratic parents who promptly sent her to a convent. When she waged a hunger strike they were forced to bring her back home.

The youngest in this family portrait from 1892
Repeatedly told by her mother that her older sister was a beauty and that she was homely, as a girl Schiaparelli once tried to plant flower seeds in her nose, mouth and ears, presciently imagining she could make herself blossom into a beauty. She gradually found love and admiration through the creation of beauty.

After a hasty, early marriage fell apart in 1914, Schiaparelli began to discover her life’s work. Her marriage had taken her to New York, and with the help of connected friends, she relocated to Paris where she became associated with artists and made her way into the domain of fashion.

Schiaparelli was at her height in the inter-war years, an equal to her rival Coco Chanel, and most of these style elements for which she is known are tied to that time.

Collaborations with artists

Schiaparelli was greatly influenced by the artists whom she considered her soulmates. First by the Dadaists, then even more profoundly by the Surrealists, her friends and collaborators included Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard, René Magritte, Alberto Giacometti and most especially Salvador Dalí.

Coat; evening suit jacket (both 1937) by Schiaparelli, embellishments designed by Jean Cocteau; Wallis Simpson wearing the Schiaparelli/Dalí-collaboration lobster dress (1937); the famous shoe hat (winter, 1937) another Schiaparelli/Dalí collaboration; Giacometti for Schiaparelli ring (1935).


The dream worlds of the Surrealists particularly appealed to Elsa Schiaparelli, and her creations reflected those dreams tinged with her own iconic wit.

Lobster hat (1939)—lobsters were one of Dalí’s favorite subjects and Schiap took to them equally; gloves (1936); models wearing Schiaparelli in a surreal landscape, photographed for Vogue by André Durst (1936); the iconic Tears Dress in collaboration with Dalí (1938); another image of the shoe hat, this time shown with a suit with red lips for pockets (1937); glasses (1951).

Trompe l’oeil

Elsa Schiaparelli first made her mark on the fashion world in 1927 with boxy sweaters knit in a special double layered stitch to keep them from losing their shape—and most importantly featuring trompe l’oeil in their designs. These caused an immediate sensation and were the basis for her opening her atelier, even if just in a garret to start. By 1935, her atelier was the 98-room salon and work studios at 21 Place Vendôme, which was christened the Schiap Shop. She had had no formal training.

Trompe l’oeil sweaters (1928, 1930s, 1927); woodgrain dress (1938); fabric sample for Schiaparelli (1936); silk gloves decorated with plastic discs reminiscent of chain mail (1935-40).


Surrealism, trompe l’oeil...the humor in Schiaparelli’s work is undeniable. That lobster dress? There are parsley sprigs scattered near the hem. Gloves have manicures, pockets have lips.

Hat and gloves (1949); pair of ostrich clips by Jean Schlumberger for Elsa Schiaparelli, Circus Collection (summer, 1938); Cane Purse (1950s); Schiaparelli Sleeping perfume bottle and suede case (another Circus Collection item, 1938); gloves (1936); Dalí/Schiaparelli telephone dial compact (1935); suit and hat with braid (1951).


Before evening wear, Schiaparelli made her name in sportswear and she never lost sight of practicality in her design. She created a wardrobe of mix-and-match, easy-care separates for her own travel. She dressed the English pilot Amy Johnson in a handsome, work-worthy outfit. In 1931, she put the tennis star Lilí Álvarez in a split skirt, shocking the staid Wimbledon crowd.

Schiaparelli, with her daughter Gogo, St. Moritz (1934); Schiaparelli dressed for travel (1941); pioneering English aviatrix Amy Johnson in Schiaparelli (1936); Lilí Álvarez wearing a divided skirt by Schiaparelli (1931).


Struggling with the curse of being told she was unattractive from early on, Schiaparelli seemed to seek redemption through fashion, both in beautifying herself and through the glorification of the ordinary in her design.

As a girl, Schiaparelli was troubled by the moles on her face, but her uncle, a noted astronomer, said they outlined the Big Dipper, which was good fortune. This later became her symbol and she commissioned a diamond pin of it. The famous Horst photo of Schiaparelli in an oval mirror reflects a wary introvert. Patchwork print evening dress (1936); simple black dress with elaborate jeweled sleeves (1938).


Not just a favorite symbol of the Surrealists, but surely of personal significance to a woman who wanted to transform her appearance, butterflies are a recurrent theme in Schiaparelli’s work. Sometimes they are unfettered, as butterfly button-like decorations seem to take flight off a jacket, other times caught, as a black netting over-dress envelopes a butterfly-printed dress beneath.

Dress and over-dress/jacket (1937); jacket with butterfly buttons (1937).


Playing a very important role in many of Schiaparelli’s 1930s creations was the embroidery realized by the House of Lesage. In some cases it nearly covered the fabric on which it was stitched, yet always heightened the design of the garment without overwhelming it. With Schiaparelli and Lesage one feels the sense of great dancers in a pas de deux, their arts completely intertwined.

Zodiac Collection evening jacket (1939); evening jacket with padded embroidery (1938); evening gown (1940); Circus Collection jacket (1938); evening jacket (1937-39); evening ensemble (1940); evening blouse (c.1938); veil (1938); jacket (1938).

Novelty buttons

Somewhere between fastener and jewelry, Schiaparelli’s buttons very often were set free from their usual roles and wended their way diagonally down the front of a jacket or floated onto a hat. The placement, the size and most of all the themes (everything from snails to shell casings) were deviantly inventive.

Trapeze artist buttons on a Circus Collection jacket (summer, 1938); cicada button on a Pagan Collection jacket (winter, 1938), astrological figure button on a jacket from the Zodiac Collection (summer, 1939), lyre and piano buttons from the Music Collection (fall, 1939).

The ‘Lightning Fastener’ 

In another technically inventive inspiration, Schiaparelli took to the zipper (the Lightning Fastener) at the vanguard of its popular use. Instead of keeping its practicality hidden, she glorified it in her designs, using it as a jolting focal point.
Lightning fastener advertisement (1935); evening gown with angled zipper (1935).

Unusual materials

Schiaparelli upended the expected in fabrics, using day fabrics for evening and evening fabrics for daywear. Her couture garments combined even suede with lace. She experimented with new man-made fabrics, including a glass-like Rhodophane (which proved impractically fragile). Her wit extended to prints featuring seed packets, carousel animals and her own press clippings.

Rhodophane ‘glass’ cape - André Durst Harper’s Bazaar photo (1935); evening blouse and bag of silk printed with the number of ration coupons required for each of the garments pictured (1940-45); plastic belt painted with pink stars (1938); cotton seed packet-print dress (1940-41); highly-textured wool dress (1930); carousel animal-print silk dress (1938).

The evening suit

So many of Schiaparelli’s 1930s creations were in the form of suits, most notably and inventively her evening suits. The dresses, sleek and baring gowns, were relatively unadorned, while their jacket mates could be ornately embellished.

Her other advancements include a wrap dress, a backless swimsuit, a built-in bra, culottes/trousers and folding glasses.
Evening jacket (winter, 1937); dinner jacket with insect buttons, 1938; Schiaparelli ensemble in front of Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1939); dinner jacket (1940).

Design themes

Themes often ran through seasonal collections, giving direction not only to the designs and embellishments, but to the performance art theatrics of Schiaparelli’s fashion shows.

The Music collection of 1937 included music boxes in belt buckles and on hats, colorfully sparkling embroidered musical notation, and buttons shaped like instruments:

The Zodiac collection of winter 1938-39 was an homage not only to astronomy, but to the Sun King Louis XIV, and to Apollo:

In her extraordinarily prolific 1938, Schiaparelli produced not only the Zodiac collection but the Circus and Pagan collections. The Commedia del’Arte came in 1939.

Chic noir 

Edgy black was a Schiaparelli speciality, as brazenly exemplified by the Skeleton Dress from 1938. Made of fine, matte silk in a clingy cut, the ‘bones’ of the dress are formed by normally delicate trapunto quilting thickly stuffed with cotton wadding.

Her edginess carried into a sort of eek chic, with a brilliant array of realistic bugs crawling around an innovative clear plastic collar (as if directly on the wearer’s skin), and fine silk printed with what look like gaping wounds used for the Tear Dress.

Outfit and veil hat (1949); insect necklace (1938); Skeleton Dress (1938); detail of the Tears Dress, showing both the printed silk of the dress and the 3-D effect used for its companion hood (1938).

Shocking pink 

Famously described as “...an aggressive, brawling, warrior pink” by Yves Saint Laurent, this vibrant color was the non-sweet signature of the designer, giving name to her most famous perfume, color to her packaging, and finding its way into her fashions from head to toe throughout her career. Her autobiography Shocking Life sealed her own sense of connection to the color, the connotation of the hue expressing her provocative, enthralling work.

Cotton suit with mermaid ceramic button (1938); detail of evening jacket (1947); Shocking de Schiaparelli perfume ad by Marcel Vertes (1950—the perfume was first created in 1936); boots designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in collaboration with André Perugia (1939-1940).
The cover of Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir.

“Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.” 

—One of the “12 Commandments for Women” from Shocking Life

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