NEW YORK — She designed in the days when Americans were expected simply to copy the French — but the legendary Claire McCardell redefined fashion instead. She made the simplest dresses around, and created modern sportswear when she came up with mix-and-match separates. She invented the romper swimsuit, the diaper suit — the first swimsuit with high-cut legs — and the popover, an easy dress which just wrapped and fastened.
None of these distinctions have escaped Kohle Yohannan, who is curating a show on McCardell which opens at her alma mater, Parsons, today. The show is part of the 75th anniversary celebration of the New School for Social Research. While emphasizing that McCardell was not, strictly speaking, a feminist, since she was too young for the birth of the movement — and died before it returned — Yohannan does see her as a role model for women.
“I would say that she actually anticipated the post-War sensibility before World War II,” he says. “She wasn’t mimicking French couture or Eurocentric trends. She never sacrificed comfort for style in making clothes.” Certainly she is remarkable in that she designed for the sort of woman she was herself, a career woman who didn’t marry until she was in her late thirties — to architect Irving Drought Harris — and whose commitment to her career always came first.
McCardell came from one of the oldest families in the venerable settlement of Frederick, Md. — and belonged to the DAR. Many of her clothes combine a startling modernity with historical references, as in her beach coverup which resembles a 19th-century man’s shirt. The practicality and tailored touches in her designs may also owe something to her upbringing as an only girl with three brothers. Yohannan traveled to Frederick and met McCardell’s brothers, all of whom are still alive. (The designer herself died of cancer at 52 in 1958.) He intends to write a book about McCardell after the exhibition is over. By the way, yes, this is the Kohle Yohannan who first came to public attention several years ago as the child husband of Mary McFadden. He says he doesn’t see McFadden these days, but that he has invited her to the show: “I think she’ll like it. Mary always liked the Forties and Fifties, too.” Yohannan, now 26, is more concerned with his current job on the Parsons staff and with the old church he bought and is renovating in upstate New York than with any past romantic follies. And, at the moment, McCardell seems to be the most important woman in his life.
The curator has assembled a remarkable selection of McCardell clothes, from little day dresses made of bright, cleverly engineered plaids to a handsome, simple, reversible cotton coat, and the designer’s own beads and handbag. According to Yohannan, during World War II, “American quality was much stronger. There was a national pride in things being made by and for Americans; it was particularly strong for the first time during the war.” McCardell saw “the value of the history and culture of the past. Ancient history and Rosie the Riveter were both part of what she was doing.
“Just by suiting herself she was delivering a message, and just by living her life, she sent a feminist message.”