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September 8, 2023

Fabulous Fashion Designs by Claire McCardell in the 1940s

Born 1905 in Frederick, Maryland, American fashion designer Claire McCardell was the founder of American ready-to-wear fashion, and in doing so defined what has become known as the American Look. She created casual but sophisticated clothes with a functional design, which reflected the lifestyles of American women. McCardell’s design philosophy was that clothes should be practical, comfortable, and feminine. Capitalizing on the World War II restrictions on the availability of French fashions and fabrics, McCardell designed simple, inexpensive clothes under the label Townley Frocks by Claire McCardell and later Claire McCardell Clothes by Townley.

Fashion designs by Claire McCardell in the 1940s

McCardell was known for many other innovations and she experimented with unconventional fabrics for various silhouettes. Her wool jersey bathing suits and cotton-diaper swimsuit are examples of nontraditional fabric use. Madras cotton halter-style full-length hostess gowns were shown for evening. Her design trademarks were double top-stitching, brass hardware replacing buttons with decorative hooks, spaghetti ties, large patch pockets, and Empire waists. McCardell also brought denim to the fashion forefront as a dress fabric, as well as mattress ticking, calicos, and wool fleece. Manmade fibers, too, were a source of innovation. She also loved leotards, hoods, pedal pushers, and dirndl skirts. Surprising color combinations were indicative of McCardell’s work.

The inspirations for McCardell’s designs were many. She relied primarily on her own intuition as a woman, believing that many other women had the same needs for their wardrobes. “Most of my ideas,” stated McCardell, “come from trying to solve my own problems.”

Claire McCardell’s greatest contribution to fashion history was in creating and defining the American Look. Her inspiration is evident in the work of the many fashion designers who followed her. She died of colon cancer in 1958 in New York at the age of 53. These fabulous photos captured portraits of classic beauties wearing Claire McCardell’s designs in the 1940s.

Three models wearing the same gray suit by Claire McCardell but with different accessories, photo by John Rawlings, Vogue, April 1, 1943

Betty McLauchlen in a dress by Claire McCardell that featured hooks as function and ornamentation, 1943

Model on left and Bijou Barrington wearing blue denim ensembles by Claire McCardell, photo by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, 1943

Dorian Leigh in Claire McCardell's fitted tweed suit with hood that folds down into a turtle neck, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Harper's Bazaar, 1944

Model in lime green jersey knit halter and shorts by Claire McCardell of Townley, photo by John Rawlings, Vogue, December 1, 1944

Model in polka-dotted wool jersey dress by Claire McCardell, photo by Constantin Joffé, background by André Girard, Vogue, December 15, 1944

Bijou Barrington wearing gray V-midriff swim suit with polka-dot ascot, by Claire McCardell, photo by Serge Balkin, 1945

Dorian Leigh in McCardell's cotton print summer dress worn with leather strapped sandals, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Harper's Bazaar, 1945

Betty Bridgers in beachwear by Claire McCardell, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1946

Marilyn Ambrose in lovely, off-shoulder, brown rayon-jersey dress by Claire McCardell, photographed by Kay Bell in Nassau, Vogue, May 15, 1946

Model in gray-striped wool jersey dinner dress by Claire McCardell, photo by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, February 1, 1946

Model in pink draped dress by Claire McCardell, photo by John Rawlings, Vogue, 1946

Betty Threatt in beautiful Wesley Simpson cinnamon plaid dress by Claire McCardell, photo by Weitzen, Vogue, August 15, 1947

Dorian Leigh in black wool wide-skirted coat, with cape-oversleeves, flip-up collar and molded bodice by Claire McCardell, red velvet beret by John Frederics, photo by Irving Penn, Vogue, September 1, 1947

Meg Mundy in skirt and blouse by Claire McCardell, photo by Horst P. Horst, 1947

Model in pretty summer evening dress and stole in thin, polished Everfast gingham by Claire McCardell, photo by John Rawlings, Vogue, June 1, 1947

Elise Daniels in pale cheese-colored Miron worsted flannel dress by Claire McCardell, amber-colored beads by Castlecliff, photo by Richard Avedon, Harper's Bazaar, February 1948

Model in an orange jersey dress with a printed sleeveless top by Claire McCardell, coin jewelry by Coro, mocha suéde slippers by Mackey, photo by Toni Frissell, Harper's Bazaar, February 1948

Models in summer dresses, left Irish linen by McMullen, right is lilac cotton by Claire McCardell, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Harper's Bazaar, May 1948

Dorian Leigh in Empire-style dress by Claire McCardell of Avisco rayon, Vogue, January 1949

Katherine Cassidy in Enka rayon tricot jersey bathing suit with brief full skirt by Claire McCardell, photo by John Rawlings, Vogue, May 15, 1949

Model in pleated dress with snug wide waist by Claire McCardell, straw hat by Brewster and envelope clutch by Phelps, photo by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, 1949


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