The modern American wardrobe owes much to Parsons alumna Claire McCardell. At a time when European couturiers reigned supreme, McCardell forged a new path for women’s ready-to-wear, offering American women easy, practical, and spirited fashion options.
Born in Maryland in 1905, McCardell graduated from Parsons (then called the New York School of Fine and Applied Art) in 1928 with a Costume Design certificate. She began her career designing womenswear at Townley Frocks, a New York manufacturer, soon after and was appointed head designer for the company in 1932. During the war years, McCardell pioneered distinctly American womenswear with clean lines and sophisticated silhouettes, employing economical fabrics like denim, nylon, and chambray. She also dispensed with structured undergarments such as corsets and crinolines and incorporated practical features like pockets in trousers.
Her first popular style was the “Monastic” dress, a simple bias-cut tent shape that could be worn with or without a belt. At a time when shoes were heavily rationed, McCardell popularized classic ballet slippers as street shoes, often covering the slippers with fabrics that coordinated with outfits.
In the early 1940s, McCardell debuted one of her key pieces, known as the “Popover” dress. Designed to be worn over pants or alone as a dress or a coat, this multifunctional garment was first made of denim, one of the many unconventional fabrics she experimented with during her career. The style was later re-created in McCardell’s collections in fine silks and linens.
McCardell returned to Parsons in 1944 as a fashion instructor. In the same year she won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award. In 1950, President Harry Truman presented the designer with the Women’s National Press Club award. Time magazine featured McCardell on its cover in 1955, describing her as “the person who understands best how American women want to look.”
McCardell lectured at Parsons and continued designing until her death in 1958. Frequently displayed in museum exhibitions alongside pieces by more popular fashion designers, McCardell’s work continues to be recognized as revolutionary and influential for its new kind of modern luxury. Her work is represented in Parsons’ Kellen Design Archives collection, which holds approximately 9,000 fashion sketches, some including fabric samples, created from 1931 to 1958.