The Influence of Claire McCardell

Jun 26, 2020 | Vintage - find it, wear it, love it

Claire McCardell

‘Who, never heard of her’, I hear you say.

Well dear friends I would hazard a guess that what you are wearing right now owes more to this lady than to anyone else in the fashion world. I will explain …..

Claire McCardell was an American 20th century fashion designer who saw the importance of casual, sportswear inspired clothing in everyday dressing twenty five years before anyone else.


Claire McCardell was born in Frederick, Maryland in 1905 and by 1928 had earned her degree in fashion from the Parsons School of Design in New York. After graduating she worked for a number of New York fashion companies finally ending up in the early 1930’s at Townley Frocks. She left for a brief period to work for Hattie Carnegie but then returned to Townley.


Rather than conforming to the long – standing practice of following and copying designs from Paris and expensive haute couture, McCardell instead looked to ordinary American women and their active lifestyle for her inspiration. She wanted to design useful, comfortable and easy to wear clothes along with being impeccably made and reasonably priced. Naturally they had to be beautifully styled as a given. All this with mass production being at the centre of her ethos. McCardell used innovative [for the time] non fashion fabrics such as denim, cotton and jersey with a pared down style. This quickly became known as the American Look.

In 1938 she had her first commercial success with an unfitted, waistless shirtdress which was cut on the bias and could be worn with or without a belt. Although widely copied this style was a staple design for the next twenty years albeit in updated forms. Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s she continued to push the boundaries in design with her fresh and youthful ideas.


Playsuits, elasticated tube tops, popover dresses, dirndle skirts, drawstring waists, all these and more can be seen, if not first in her designs then certainly in her influence in bringing them into our everyday wardrobe. She was even the first designer to introduce ballet style pumps into everyday wear.

Oh, and if you think Donna Karan invented capsule dressing then think again. Yes, it was Claire McCardell who introduced a 4-5 piece, mix and match edited collection of separates selling for $100 and aimed at the ‘ladies who travel’.

Very little appears to have been written about McCardell who died in the late 1950’s of colon cancer. I came across her in vintage fashion books and believe that she deserves far more credit than she gets for her influence on the way we all dress today. Her clothes show a designer who was ahead of her time, a true innovator and an unsung hero of 20th century fashion.