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  • Debra Scala Giokas

Who Is Claire McCardell?

How I Learned About This American Fashion Designer

In 2018 I read an article in The New York Times about an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called, "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination." It was then that I first heard her name – Claire McCardell. Her Monastic Dress was on display.

The Monastic Dress from 1938 was simple like a monk's cassock and you could tie a rope around the waist, up or down, to add shape. Claire McCardell wore one in red at the Townley store, and by chance a buyer saw her and bought 100 dresses. They sold out, and the success of this dress earned McCardell her own label.

Mary Ryan Reeves' illustration in the picture book, Claire.

McCardell said, “Casual never means careless,” and she is credited with creating American sportswear. Those in the fashion industry know very well who she is. But for the rest of us women, well, we probably never thought twice about the history of pockets and ballet flats and separates. After her death in 1958, her family did not continue her brand; however, her style continued to influence such designers as Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Kors and Diane von Furstenberg.

I thought children should learn about our American fashion icon. So my research led me to read her 1956 autobiography What Shall I Wear? and any and all articles I could find. One of the many facts I learned was that in 1950, President Harry Truman and First Lady Bess presented Claire McCardell with an award from the Women's National Press Club. I finished my manuscript, let it sit in the drawer for some time, and then decided to find an illustrator. What happened next could be called fate or luck or serendipity.

Mary Ryan Reeves' illustration in the picture book, Claire.

The Claire McCardell Project

Thanks to the internet, I found out about the Frederick Art Club, its President Marilyn Bagel and their Claire McCardell Project. The Frederick Art Club, based out of Frederick, Maryland, is a bunch of bright, talented and community-oriented women who dreamed up a way to honor their hometown hero with a bronze statue. I reached out to Marilyn with my idea and she graciously introduced me to one of its members, Mary Ryan Reeves (pictured below), who graduated from Claire's alma mater, Hood College in Frederick. Mary’s first job was as a fashion model before she embarked on a long career as an art educator. Mary and I clicked across state lines, remotely, during the pandemic and she went to work on the pen and ink illustrations for my words about McCardell. Click here to see Mary's artwork.

Illustrator Mary Ryan Reeves

Our picture book, Claire: The Little Girl Who Climbed to the Top and Changed the Way Women Dress, was published on what would have been McCardell’s 116th birthday, May 24, 2021. We also created a companion coloring book, Claire’s Closet to show children the progression of Claire’s designs to our modern sportswear.

Five months after the publication of our books, the Frederick Art Club unveiled their bronze statue, exquisitely sculpted by Sara Hempel Irani, on a beautiful October day at the east end of Carroll Creek Linear Park in downtown Frederick, Maryland. There are not many statues of women in the United States, and I do believe more people will learn about Claire McCardell, as a result of their efforts. Publications such as Threads Magazine and Women's Wear Daily even wrote about it.

Now there is another recent development in the retelling of Claire McCardell’s story. McCardell’s autobiography, What Shall I Wear?, has been republished. The popular designer Tory Burch wrote the introduction, and she recently appeared on "Good Morning America" to speak about McCardell’s influence on her.

And in the August 2022 issue of Vogue Magazine, Laia Garcia-Futado penned, “The Most Important Lessons I Learned From Claire McCardell’s Newly Reissued 1956 Book,

What Shall I Wear? One is, “If the shoe hurts, give it away.” You can read her article here.

For The New York Times, on August 31, its fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman penned "Don't Get Dressed Without Reading This Book, and you can read her article here.

The Maryland Center for History and Culture will open its Claire McCardell exhibit in November 2022. Tory Burch established a scholarship at the Center in honor of McCardell.

Mary Ryan Reeves' illustration of ballet flats in the coloring book, Claire's Closet.

What did I learn from Claire McCardell and this process? I learned that it is so important to follow your heart, believe in yourself and trust your instincts. And always be curious.

I’ll leave you with one of my rewards. Here is a young girl coloring one of Mary’s illustrations in "Claire’s Closet." Who knows, perhaps this will encourage her to be the next great designer…or at least, to create something special that we will want to learn more about one day.

Learn about Claire McCardell

You can find our picture book and our coloring book about Claire McCardell online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Walmart, or by asking your favorite independent bookseller to order it for you. It may also be found in the shop at the Maryland Center for History and Culture and signed copies at The Catbird Seat in Sayville, New York.

Picture Book, Claire, illustration of young Claire with seamstress Annie, and Coloring Book, Claire's Closet

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