The Fabulous Miss K: One of the most prolific and influential designers of the 20th century, Claire McCardell  was lesser known than some of the Paris designers such as Chanel or Dior, but was foremost in developing sportswear as we know it today.

Claire had an early interest in fashion creating cut-out dolls from her mother’s fashion magazines and making her own clothes as a teenager. At 16 she attended the famous Parsons School.

After graduating she went to work with Robert Turk at Townley Frocks Ltd, and after his untimely death, she stepped in to design the spring collection in 1931 with ground breaking styles and continued as head designer until 1939 when Townley closed it’s doors.

She was employed by Hattie Carnigie but her designs were too much for their clients who preferred the formality of Paris couture.

Claire returned to Townely in 1940 when it re-opened and when the United States entered WW II in 1941 the “American Look” developed due to being cut off from the Paris influence.

Her clean and functional lines, draping fabric and styles were reminiscent of the designs of Madame Gres and Vionnet which she had seen during her time in Paris.

In 1938 McCardell launched the Monastic Dress – a shift-like, untailored dress with loose sleeves and patch pockets which was belted at the waist to create shape.  This became very typical of her style, and she followed it in 1942 with the Pop Over Dress – used as a cover up over bathing suits, dressing gowns or party dresses.

Her use of natural materials such as cotton, twill and gingham along with sportswear styles such as dirndl skirts, pedal pushers and halter neck or drawstring dresses were her trade marks. Ballet slippers, often covered in the same fabric as the outfit, were worn with everything from daywear to ball gowns.

In 1944 she returned to Parsons as an instructor and remained there for the rest of her life.  McCardell won many awards for her designs including two “winnes” – the most prestigious recognition in fashion.

She was also  the first fashion designer to be voted American Women of Achievement.  She was the founder of American ready-to-wear, featured of the cover of Time Magazine, and still influences many designers to this day.

The Fabulous Miss K is Karen James Welton, a freelance stylist with 20 years experience in fashion and beauty business. She is based in Norwich but works both locally and in London, including a stint at Vivienne Westwood.

She is the former fashion editor of Urbane Magazine and has worked with Life Matters EEN, the Iceini Guide and is a writer and stylist for Vintage Life Magazine.

4 Responses

  1. Liz Tregenza

    McCardell is one of my all time fave designers. She had such an influence on the development of what we now consider as American style. It is such a shame she died so young, because I think she could have continued to have a massive influence on the fashion industry.

  2. Lisa Prest

    You know, I have a Claire McCardell for Townley dress in my wardrobe that I’ve never worn. I really must dig that thing out sometime…

  3. mary young

    As a young person in the 1950’s and 1960’s I loved loved loved the Clair Mccardle style which was sold in all
    the NYC department stores and then just vanished. I always wondered about her and what happened. Now I know the rest of the stories. Wish I had something of hers in my closet. I have never never never come across a piece of her clothing in all my years of thrift shopping. Endangered species!