Well it’s Women’s History Month, and there is certainly no shortage of outstanding individuals here in Mount Olivet Cemetery to feature in this week’s “Story in Stone.” Women’s History Month had its origins as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress passed a public law which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7th, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” Throughout the next five years, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987 after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed another law which designated the month of March, 1987 as “Women’s History Month.”
Back to "monumental" women in our cemetery, one of the best examples is already known to many Fredericktonians and those interested in the history of clothing and fashion design. Most people, however, have never heard of a woman named Claire McCardell Harris. This is unfortunate because the ingenuitive, Frederick native is credited with revolutionizing women’s fashion, and helping to create what would be coined “the American Look.” This all began roughly 90 years ago.
Whether you are a fashion aficionado or not, many of us are familiar with designer names such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Gianni Versace, Vera Wang, Tommy Hilfiger, Coco Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior. It’s just too bad that the same is not true about Claire McCardell Harris, or simply Claire McCardell as she was more commonly known.
This wasn’t always the case as Claire was revered internationally in her heyday of the 1930’s-1950’s. She was a Frederick girl who made an impact on the world with her creations.
There has been plenty written about Claire McCardell over the years. In my opinion, I put one work, in particular, at the top of the list—a fine book, published in 1998 and written by Kohle Yohannon and Nancy Nolf (Carl) entitled Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism. This 151-page hardcover is steeped in illustrations and photographs and tells the life story of Ms. McCardell Harris from her childhood in Frederick up through her death from colon cancer on March 22nd, 1958 at the age of 52.
Author Yohannon was an art and design historian and faculty member of Claire’s alma-mater of the Parson’s School of Design in New York, and the late Ms. Carl was a former faculty member and historian of Hood College, where Claire spent two years at the start of her collegiate career. You can purchase this book on Amazon, along with one penned by Claire, herself, back in 1956 entitled “What Shall I Wear?” The descriptive review on the website reads as follows:
First published in 1956, What Shall I Wear? is a distillation of McCardell’s democratic fashion philosophy and a chattily vivacious guide to looking effortlessly stylish. Mostly eschewing Paris, although she studied there and was influenced by Vionnet and Madame Gres, McCardell preferred an unadorned aesthetic; modern and minimalist, elegant and relaxed, even for evening, with wool jersey and tweed among her favorite fabrics.
What Shall I Wear? provides a glimpse into the sources of McCardell’s inspiration―travel, sports, the American leisure lifestyle, and her own closet―and how she transformed them into fashion, all the while approaching design from her chosen vantage point of practicality. More relevant than ever is McCardell’s sensible advice on how to cultivate a wardrobe of long-lasting, durable pieces, a vital approach to style for those looking to offset the cost of the modern fast-fashion economy. A retro treat for designers and everyone who loves fashion―vintage and contemporary―and teeming with charming illustrations and timeless advice for finding your own best look, creatively shopping on a budget, and building a real wardrobe that is lasting, chic, and individual, What Shall I Wear? is a tribute to the American spirit in fashion.
A more recent article about Ms. McCardell appeared a few months back in the December 12th edition of the Washington Post Magazine. Many anecdotes from the above two works were utilized by author Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson in an article entitled: A Dress for Everyone: Claire McCardell took on the fashion industry — and revolutionized what women wear.
So, at best, I will make a feeble attempt of giving a brief overview instead of trying to recount the life, times, and triumphs of this revolutionary fashion designer. The fore-mentioned resources will provide a much richer story.
Claire McCardell designed for the emerging active lifestyle of women in the 1940s and ’50s. She was the originator of mix-and-match separates, open-backed sundresses, and feminine denim fashion. Ms. McCardell started the trend for ballet flats as a solution to a wartime leather-rationing measure. Spaghetti straps, brass hooks and eyes as fasteners, rivets, menswear details and fabrics can also be credited to the former Frederictonian. Claire’s Monastic and Pop-over dresses achieved cult status, and her fashions were taken up by working women, suburban housewives, and high society ladies alike.
Claire McCardell was born May 24th, 1905 in Frederick to Adrian Leroy and Eleanor "Ella" M. (Clingan) McCardell (originally from Jackson, Mississippi). She was the oldest in her family and had three brothers: Adrian, Robert and John. Mr. McCardell was a state senator and president of the Frederick County National Bank. His father, Adrian C. McCardell, was a native of Williamsport, MD and confectioner who was running a successful sweet shop on N. Market Street at the time of his granddaughter's birth. Claire's grandfather also had strong ties with Mount Olivet as he served as the cemetery's president from 1919 until his death in 1932.
Claire's family lived on Rockwell Terrace, the fine suburban neighborhood on the city's northwest side.
From the age of five, Claire was interested in fashions, demonstrated by the clipping of paper dolls from many of her mother’s fashion magazines. By the time she was in her teens, Claire was dismantling her clothes, and those of her siblings in an effort to remake them herself.
After graduating from Frederick High School in 1923, Claire attended Hood College for two years. In 1926, she left to study at the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York City for three years. This institution eventually became known as the Parsons School of Design. The curriculum involved two semesters of study in Paris, which made quite an impression on the Marylander. She was accompanied by friend Mildred Boykin, a fellow student of Claire's who also had ambitions as a fashion designer. The two would be lifelong friends.
In late 1928, Claire finally obtained her first job as a fit model in the French Room at B. Altman’s department store in New York. In the 1930 census Claire can be found living with Mildred and her mother on E. 30th Street (near 5th Avenue) in New York City.
In 1929, Claire started her career with Robert Turk, an independent designer and dressmaker. Turk’s untimely death led his company to be absorbed by Townley Frocks, where Claire later became chief designer. During World War II, she designed the “Pop-Over” dress and soon introduced leotards which were dubbed by Life magazine as “funny tights.” She received two American Fashions Critics’ Awards and a Coty Award.
Claire married her longtime boyfriend, Irving Drought Harris, an architect from Texas. This was in 1943, and in doing so, the former Miss McCardell became a step-mother to Harris’ children (John and Elizabeth) from a former marriage. Claire is said to have often shunned Harris’ ambitious New York social life whenever possible. She was more comfortable living in the humble surroundings of her rustic country farm retreat in Frenchtown, NJ.
McCardell’s design prowess was so esteemed that in 1955 she partnered with some of Europe’s best artists, like Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Joan Miro, using their fabric designs with her garments for a feature in LIFE Magazine. That same year Claire landed the cover of Time, only the third fashion designer to have done so. In 1956, she wrote her book, “What Shall I Wear?” Claire was not only at the top of her field, but she was also a marketable commodity, often sought for bringing modern and stylish credibility to other products.
Sadly, the end of life was near. Claire would be diagnosed with colon cancer. She continued to work, but the disease slowly took its toll. A popular story has been recounted involving an event in the winter of 1958 as the designer was bed bound in a New York hospital. Claire insisted that her dear friend Mildred Boykin (Orrick) help her attend a final showing of her clothes, most of which had been designed while in the hospital. The pair was successful in making a stealthy escape, and attended the premiere as desired. Apparently, Claire took the stage at the conclusion of the show, and received a hearty, standing ovation from the audience, media members and runway models.
In just a few short months, Claire McCardell was gone--dead at the age of 52. This made front page news back home in Frederick.
The “Frederick fashionista” was mourned by not only her family, friends and industry, but by generations of women who purchased and collected her clothes. The Coty American Fashion Critics' Awards Hall of Fame awarded Claire a posthumous induction later that year. The Townley company, who had made her a partner in 1952, closed soon after her death. Even though offers to pick up the McCardell line came from multiple directions, the McCardell family decided to let the brand name die with the designer, rather than sell it off to someone else.
In the early 1980’s, spurred by renewed interest in McCardell, Lord & Taylor department store reissued a line of McCardell-inspired dresses. Examples of Claire's fashions have been featured in museum exhibits at such places as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), the Fashion Institute of Technology (State University of New York), the Maryland Historical Society and Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (Los Angeles). The advent of the internet has helped reintroduce Claire (and her work) to later generations through blog articles and portfolio pieces. Even eBay has played a role, as auctions of McCardell clothing items are a regular occurrence, with original vintage dresses selling from $150-$2,000.
As Kohle Yohannon and Nancy Nolf-Carl say in their book (Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism) “Claire McCardell was a pioneer in minimalism, an innovator of modernism, and throughout her short but influential career she provided women with designs that stressed comfort, practicality, and integrity.” Thankfully, Claire McCardell Harris is still remembered today and her popularity seems to be growing again. It’s not difficult to see why she is considered a lady with outstanding vision of informed fashions that are enjoyed by young girls and ladies today. It is again amazing to think that she is buried here in Mount Olivet, back in her old home town—as charming as it was in her time…but arguably more modern and stylish thanks to our mastery of adaptive reuse of historic buildings and public artwork;) She’d be proud, I’m sure.