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Claire McCardell and the History of American Fashion

Claire McCardell and the History of American Fashion

“Most of my ideas seem startlingly self-evident...I wonder why I didn't think of them before.''

— Claire McCardell

Ask most people who was the creator of the “American Look” and they’d likely tell you Donna Karan, Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren.  In reality, fashion designer Claire McCardell created the easy, effortless, casual style often associated with American designers. She was revolutionary, but her contribution to fashion is often overshadowed by her contemporaries such as, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, produced grand fashions and lived grand lives.

She designed for women like herself, working women. I didn’t learn about her until after I launched Senza Tempo, but the more I learn, the more I realize I identify with her as a designer more than almost any other I can think of. Senza Tempo was founded to solve a problem for working women who want quality and style, but don’t want to grossly overpay. Or pay for marketing instead of branding.

Claire McCardell’s deliberate simplicity and focus on practicality in her designs enabled mass production and thereby made them accessibly priced when women most needed it — from the Depression through World War II.  ''We look at her as the founder of democratic American fashion,” Valerie Steel, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Practical rarely makes headlines or history, which is why many of her revolutionary creations are often erroneously attributed to later splashier designers.

  • She created the first “separates wardrobe” by designing dresses with interchangeable tops and skirts, the idea generally identified with Donna Karan and her in 1985.  She called it her Flexible Five Piece Wardrobe.

  • Diane Von Furstenburg is generally lauded as the creator of the wrap dress, but Claire McCardell’s 1942 Popover dress was the true original.  She thought women should be able do the cooking and be chic at the same time. 

  • She’s also the designer responsible for the ongoing trend of wearing ballet slippers as footwear — which was the result of leather rationing during WWII.  

Her designs were often considered subtly sexy, midriff baring separates and soft flowing skirts. But they were simple, practical, functional and most importantly — stylish.

When FIT did a retrospective of her work, almost every item looked like it could be worn today. Which is likely why her influence endures whether most realize it was her influence or not.