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Vintage 101: Claire McCardell

IN CHAPTER 11 of I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason, Cece visits her friend Bridget's vintage clothing shop and reads up in one of Bridget's books about Claire McCardell, the founder of American ready-to-wear fashion. There would be no Ralph Lauren, no Calvin Klein, and no Donna Karan without Claire McCardell. McCardell invented casual sophistication. From the first successful silhouette she created, the "Monastic," a dartless, waistless tent dress that could be worn with or without a belt, she championed practicality and comfort. Every pocket must have a raison d'etre. Play clothes get hoods; it’s cold in the winter. All women deserve an interchangeable, coordinated wardrobe of separates which don't wrinkle. Which leads me to jersey. McCardell believed in jersey. And zippers. She was the first designer to use a zipper. To use denim as a dress fabric. To decry stilettos. To advocate ballet flats worn with pedal pushers (her invention, put to excellent use by Audrey Hepburn). Designed under the label Townley Frocks by Claire McCardell and later Claire McCardell Clothes by Townley, McCardell's designs often featured adjustable elements, like drawstrings and spaghetti strips, that allowed for different body types. And God bless her for that. "Most of my ideas," she once said, "come from trying to solve my own problems."

We need more female fashion designers. While in Paris during her sophomore year at Parsons School of Design in New York, McCardell bought samples from the French couturier Madeleine Vionnet and studied the construction of her garments, incorporating the bias cut into her own designs. But on the whole, she had little use for French fashion, unlike most American designers working around WWII. She favored textiles from American mills that had the look and feel of the cotton calicos and homespun plaids of the nineteenth century. If you ever come across a Claire McCardell madras cotton halter-style full-length hostess gown, I'll have to kill you.

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