Travel, Leisurewear, and Claire McCardell

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With the Memorial Day weekend behind us, summertime weather is conceivably within our grasp. For many of us, summer (and indeed Memorial Day) means more leisure time and travel. This of  course requires the appropriate attire: sportswear. Historically speaking, both sportswear and leisure travel were relatively new phenomenons, one that designer Claire McCardell contributed to immensely. Leisure and sportswear both began their ascent into popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Claire McCardell began her rise to fame in the 1930s.

Travel & Sportswear

Travel and vacationing became more accessible to more people as the automobile grew in popularity and availability. Production of automobiles more than doubled between 1920 and 1930 (Olian 2003). Driving also became a leisure activity in and of itself, as well as a symbol of freedom and independence to women – who had learned to drive out of necessity during World War I (Olian 1990).

Chevrolet Ad, 1920.

Wealthy New Yorkers took full advantage of the growing tourism industry and flocked south and west in the 1920 and 1930s. [1] In the 1920s, couturiers picked up on the needs of wealthy clients engaged in this new activity. “The iconography of sports and the design of sports clothing became a focus for the new modernity. Couturiers opened specialist departments, and none took this aspect of clothing more seriously than Patou, who designed for professional sports people.” (Mendes & De La Haye 1999).

St Petersburg Florida 1930s

Despite the financial difficulties of the 1930s and its impact on travel for leisure, the decade saw a host of travel innovations that helped people get to more remote locations in much quicker and luxurious or convenient ways. The Greyhound bus line was inaugurated in 1930 and the largest ocean liner, the Queen Mary, was launched in 1934. In 1938, the Queen Mary crossed the Atlantic Ocean in just over three days – a record at the time.

Greyhound bus ad, c. 1937.

From ‘The Golden Age of Travel

Claire McCardell

I’ve previously mentioned that Claire McCardell is one of my favorite designers. Along with Bonnie Cashin, Elizabeth Hawkes, Vera Maxelll and others, Claire McCardell helped to define the look of American Sportswear. “These designers established the modern dress code, letting playsuits and other activewear outfits suffice for casual clothing; allowing pants to enter the wardrobe, often as an alternative in an outfit also offering a skirt; and prizing rationalism and versatility in dress, in contradiction to dressing for an occasion or allotment of the day.” [2]

McCardell was a rising star in the 1930s, and in 1931 was appointed to the position of head designer at Townley Frocks. By the late 1930s she had become recognized for using menswear design and detailing, for mix-and-match separates, and her simple, direct design aesthetic (Mendes & De La Haye, 1999; Buxbaum, 2005). Her wool jersey separates of 1934 “could be combined in different ways to meet almost any sartorial situation on a short trip traveling light. A low-backed halter top, a covered-up top, long and short skirts, a culotte.” [3] In 1938, she designed the simple belted ‘Monastic Dress’, Harem pants, as well as gymnastic outfits (or playsuits) with her signature details.

“[McCardell] created garments without traditional, structural elements. A particularly popular one, later known as the ‘Monastic’ dress, took on form when simply belted at the waist. It was this, as well as other loosely fitted dress designs, that helped establish her as one of the initiators of the “American” look. Her garments were detailed with little brass hooks and other hardware closures, such as ‘spaghetti’ or ‘shoestring’ ties, double outline stitching, and big pockets.” (Buxbaum, 2005).

Below is a small gallery of images depicting McCardell’s sportswear designs from the 1930s and 1940s meant to be taken out of a suitcase and worn on sunny summer days.

Lounging Pajamas (1938) by Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks. Gift of Claire McCardell, 1949. Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. No. C.I.49.37.2a, b.

Sundress (1945) by Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks. Gift of Claire McCardell, 1956. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009. No.2009.300.230.

Wool and Cotton Ensemble (1946) by Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks. Gift of Claire McCardell, 1956. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; No. 2009.300.231a–c.

Playsuit (1948) by Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks. Gift of Claire McCardell, 1949. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute. No. C.I.49.37.20a, b.

Wool enseble (1949) by Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Claire McCardell, 1956. No. 2009.300.236a, b

Shoes (1953) by Claire McCardell made by Capezio. Gift of Ben Sommers, 1953. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; No.2009.300.3146a, b.


[1] “America By Car: Mr. Miami Beach.”American Experience PBS special.

[2] American Ingenuity: Sportswear, 1930s–1970s | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[3] Sinderbrand, Laura. All-American: A Sportswear Tradition. New York: Fashion Institute of Technology, 1985. 35

Select Bibliography

Buxbaum, Gerda  Icons Of Fashion: The 20th Century (Prestel’s Icons)Prestel, 2005.

Mendes, Valerie and Amy De la Haye. 20th Century Fashion. Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Olian, JoAnne.  Authentic French Fashions of the Twenties: 413 Costume Designs from . Dover Publications 1990.

Olian, JoAnne. Children’s fashions, 1900-1950, as pictured in Sears catalogs: Dover Publications, 2003.

*Model in a Summer Dress by Claire McCardell, 1946 (Corbis)

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5 Comments

  • Lourdes June 02, 2010 09.06 am

    That McCardell wool ensemble looks remarkably like the Isabel Toledo cigar dress pictured at Couture Lab.

     
  • Heather June 02, 2010 11.32 am

    Wow Lourdes – good eye! For those who might want to make a comparison themselves, follow this link: http://www.couturelab.com/products/Burgundy_Cigar_Twist_Gown-2879-D83.html

     
  • keren b. June 03, 2010 12.57 pm

    McCardell is by far my favorite American designer. I find her designs almost contemporary, her ease and confident style is still relevant to women in Amercia today.

     
  • Heather Vaughan June 03, 2010 12.59 pm

    Thanks for the note Keren. I completely agree. Such simple, clean lines have made her designs classic.

     
  • Lizzie June 06, 2010 12.54 pm

    All so beautiful, and all very wearable today, except perhaps for the swimsuit. I had a lady tell me once that she had several McCardells that she bought in the 50s, and finally, sometime in the 80s stopped wearing them, and then only because they were threadbare!

     

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