Claire McCardell originated The American Look (part 1)

10 Aug
Claire McCardell modelling own designClaire McCardell modeling her own design

Paris reigned the fashion world, also in New York untill Claire McCardell came along. Before Seventh Avenue was mass producing copies of French creations, Claire originated The American Look and paved the way for designers as Halston, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.



Claire McCardellon the way to ParisClaire McCardell on the way to Paris

Claire McCardell , born in 1905, grew up as a tomboy, probably due to being a girl only having three brothers, who nicknamed her “Kick”. She dreamed of being an illustrator and in 1925 she persuaded her father to let her transfer to the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (later Parsons). 

In 1927, Claire went to Paris, “what was then the source of all fashion” and continued her studies at the Parsons branch school at the Place des Vosges. While in Paris, Claire worked part-time tracing fashion sketches and learned, in her own words, “the way clothes worked, the way they felt, where they fastened.” Together with her classmates  she would often comb Parisian flea markets, looking for cast-off couture clothing, which they would then take home and unstitch to see exactly how the garments were created. especially the samples from the French couturier Madeleine Vionnet, whose influence was evident in Claire’s work; though she did not work in the couture tradition, she was able to create ready-to-wear clothing by simplifying Vionnet’s cut. Claire incorporated the bias cut into her designs, both for aesthetic as well as functional effects. 

After graduating Claire takes a series of jobs -painting rosebuds on lampshades and modeling for B. Altman- before she gets a job at a knitwear company. She is fired eight months later, after the owner tells her, “Stop designing for yourself and start designing for the customers.” Instead she finds a job with designer Robert Turk.


Bathing suits/ Play suits by Claire McCardell

bathing suittwo-piece bathing suit, 1948
bathing suit 1951bathing suit 1951 
Play,bathing suit, 1943
play suit 1943, diaper silhouet
playsuit 1944play suit 1944, bloomer sihouet
swimsuit 1957
025_claire-mc-cardell_theredlistplay suit early 1950’s, bloomer silhouet 
two piece play suit
two piece play suit 
Denim Playsuit by Claire Mc Cardell, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1946denim plat suit, 1946


When Robert Turk shuts down his business, Claire follows him to Townley Frocks. Shortly after the move to Townley and just a month before the spring showing in 1931, Robert Turk tragically drowned while swimming, forcing Claire to finish the collection. She recalled how she dealt with the opportunistic crisis: “I did what everybody else did in those days – copied Paris.  The collection wasn’t great, but it sold.”  This success encouraged Claire to experiment.

In 1934, Claire launches her first innovation: the interchangeable separates, for which the public took some time to get used to. “It is my experience that a good, new idea must be repeated over and over to catch on,” she’ll later say. “You have to sneak up with it, at least in mass-produced clothes.” Three years later she designs her first bathing suits for Townley..

Department store Lord & Taylor becomes one of the first retailers to promote homegrown design during the Depression years of the thirties, it was almost a decade, according to The New York Times, before “people started talking about the ‘American look’ in fashion. It was fresh, spirited, young. It was made for healthy, long-legged girls who were going places and wanted clothes they could move in.”

For fall 1938, Claire shows dirndls (skirt with attached apron), which fall flat, and the Monastic  dress—which takes off after Best & Co. buys the look and markets it as the Nada frock. Time will later report, “Until then, American women had little choice of styles between a cotton house dress and an afternoon dress. The Monastic dress gave American fashion a new flexibility that it has never lost.” Despite being an unqualified and much copied hit, the Monastic will eventually—when Claire insists on repeating its silhouette in subsequent seasons—cripple Townley financially. The company closes later in the year.

Monastic dress

Monastic dress, 1949

Claire joins Hattie Carnegie designing “Workshop Originals”, but the company thought her designs were “too simple for the rich tastes of the Carnegie carriage trade”. In January 1940, four months before the German occupation,she  attends her last Paris fashion show. Soon after, she will leave Hattie Carnegie and work briefly for lower-cost manufacturer Win-Sum, before rejoining the reopened Townley—the surprise outcome of a chance meeting on an elevator with her former employer and his new partner Adolph Klein. She will stay with Townly till her death.

Claire introduces the Kitchen Dinner dress—just the thing, a reviewer says, “for the girl who wants quickly to whip up a meal for her beau or her husband and to serve it to him looking smart. Adolf Klein adds Claire McCardell’s name to Townley labels. Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Historic Costume Collection at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City noted that in Claire McCardell’s time, “You had the name of the store or manufacturer. The designer was someone kept in the back room. …But she wanted the credit. It wasn’t an ego trip. It was just acknowledgment of her work.”

Her name is becoming a brand; she is one of the very first American designers to earn this kind of personal recognition. Unable to get proper shoes for her presentations due to wartime restrictions, she uses Capezio ballet slippers, starting a craze for dance flats.

Capezio dance flats

 Caprezio dance flats 

The War Production Board issues Regulation L85, which sets restrictions on womenswear. Claire comes up with another innovation because of the fabric shortish:  Salvage Sally line of patchworked clothes and she introduces the denim Pop-over,a wrap-around housedress which Vogue will later describe as a major invention “born of necessity.” Some 75,000 of these $6.95 dresses ((its low price was because it was classified as a ‘utility garment’ and Claire’s manufacturer, Adolf Klein, of Townley, was able to make a special deal with labor) ) are sold within the year. Some form of a wraparound dress around $25 or $30 was always in Claire’s collection thereafter, and she liked denim so much she made coats and suits of it for townwear completed with the workman’s double topstitching as a form of decoration. … Claire could take five dollars worth of common cotton calico and make a dress a smart woman could wear anywhere. The modern woman could both be chic and do the cooking. The Popover is lauded at the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards.

Pop-over dress

popover dress ad

Popover dress

At the age of 37, Claire took a break from her professional career to focus on her personal life, marrying Texas architect Irving Drought Harris, who had two children from a previous marriage. She helped raise them, but her growing career and her husband’s disapproval put a strain on the family relationship.  Claire’s brother Bob said about the marriage: “Irving never approved of her career. He would have been very happy if she gave that up.” But she had made a name for herself and she was intent on having her career.  It was her first love.

When Claire wins her first Coty Award, Norman Norell, who received the inaugural prize the year before, will say that she should have had that first: “Don’t forget, Claire invented all those marvelous things strictly within the limits of mass production. . . .

New York Times reporter Virginia Pope writes that Claire “is frequently spoken of as the most American of designer, for she seems to have a special aptitude for understanding and interpreting the life of the American woman.”

Lord & Taylor uses the phrase The American Look for the first time in 1945. In response to MoMA’s query “Are clothes modern?” Vogue publishes an Erwin Blumenfeld portrait of Claire wearing her “future dress,” which is “made entirely of two huge triangles that tie at the neck, back, and front.”

Future dress

Claire McCardell modelling her Future Dress, ph. by Erwin BlumenfeldClaire McCardell wearing her “Future Dress”, ph. by Irving Penn 
Evening dress - Clare McCardell 1945

After World War II, Claire continued to branch out in the fashion industry, working as a volunteer critic at the Parsons School of Design, as well as joining an advisory panel for Time, designing a new magazine that would become Sports Illustrated. Her most lasting impression, however, would continue to be in design.

In September 1948, Claire McCardell receives the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award.

irving-penn-vogue-1950Irving Penn for Vogue, 1950: two girls being comfortable in Claire McCardell’s clothes, knitting, reading, smoking, and oozing chic insouciance at a small café table

“The typical McCardell girl looked comfortable in her clothes because she was comfortable,” wrote Sally Kirkland, a fashion editor at Vogue in the forties. “She always had deep side pockets, even in evening dresses, which encouraged a sort of nonchalant Astaire-like stance.”

Of her summer line for 1951, The New York Times says, “The designs were made of distinctive fabrics as always. The clothes were functional and styled basically, following the lines of the fabrics rather than molding anything to the body. Miss McCardell believes in belting gathers in at the waist rather than cutting the fabric to fit.”

In 1952 Claire becomes a partner in Townley.

Claire McCardell designs till 1952

evening ensemble 1937evening ensemble, 1937 
1939dress, 1939
dress 1939-40dress, 1939-40
dress, 1940’s
dress 1943
dress, 1943
sundress 1943
sundress, 1943
ensemble 1944
ensemble, 1944, with workmans dubble topstiches
ensemble, 1945
suit 1945
suit, 1945
sundress 1946
sundress, 1946
ensemble 1946
ensemble, 1946 
dress 1946
dress, 1946
dress 1946-47
dress, 1946-47
dress, 1947
dress, 1948
dress 1950
dress, 1950
1950 evening wear
evening wear, 1950
dress 1950, 2
dress, 1950
coat 1952
coat, 1952
Claire McCardell
Claire McCardell
NEXT WEEK: Claire McCardell (Part two)

Info:    VoguePedia &

a lot of pictures found:


10 Responses to “Claire McCardell originated The American Look (part 1)”

  1. fabrickated 3 June 2015 at 17:13 #

    What a lovely post and selection of photographs. Thank you very much.

  2. marc 6 May 2016 at 15:35 #

    Awesome site, love the work and the biography you created for this design blazer, thank you


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