What Shall I Wear?: The What, Where, When
One of the things I love most about fashion is that it can make you feel differently—more confident, more beautiful, more like you. Claire McCardell understood this when she said “dress for yourself”—not for anyone else. This was radical in the 1940s, when she had genuinely invented American sportswear and revolutionized the way we dress. Her designs instilled a sense of freedom, encouraged self-expression, and empowered women with a casual elegance that is as relevant today as it was seventy-five years ago.
So many of McCardell’s ideas and innovations are taken for granted now: zippers on skirts, wrap dresses, ballet flats, spaghetti straps, dolman sleeves, mix-and-match separates. She was the first designer to put pockets on a dress, and she used hooks and eyes in lieu of corsets to define the waist. While other designers looked to Paris couture for inspiration, McCardell elevated the practical needs of American women. She gave them fabrics that were soft and durable, sleeves that could be rolled up, and silhouettes that moved with the body, not against it. Everything was intentional, nothing was frivolous, and comfort was as vital as glamour.
I first discovered McCardell as an art history student at the University of Pennsylvania, but I’ve been particularly drawn to her work in recent years. What’s amazing to me is how her clothes let women feel unencumbered—elegant, yet at ease as they moved through their busy days. I love that McCardell was a contrarian, using jersey and cotton for evening gowns and borrowing denim, rivets, and topstitching from men’s workwear. She broke rules with her own style as well, tying ribbons and shoelaces around her neck instead of pearls. In this charming book, which has been updated for the first time in decades, she encourages women to take similar risks, to have fun with fashion, and to make it their own—a mantra as timeless as her popover dress.
Unsurprisingly, women wore McCardell’s clothes to shreds. I learned this when I visited the Maryland Center for History and Culture (MCHC) in Baltimore, home to one of the largest archives of McCardell’s oeuvre, including letters, journals, and transcripts of interviews donated by her family after her death in 1958. There are thirty original McCardell pieces—some from her own wardrobe—but only thirty, because women truly lived in her clothes.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say she has inspired every designer, and I think she deserves far more recognition. In addition to starting her own business in the forties, McCardell was the first American woman to print her name on her clothing labels—not the manufacturer’s. I hope this book will educate the next generation about her ingenuity and her remarkable entrepreneurial spirit.
I can’t overstate McCardell’s impact on me as a designer, and I feel it’s important to help preserve her legacy. We’ve established the Tory Burch Claire McCardell Fashion Fellowship at the MCHC, which will give a professional in the museum field the opportunity to create an exhibition on the designer’s life and work. The exhibit will highlight her significance not only to American fashion, but to women’s history.
On that note, it’s critical to point out that for all the great style advice in What Shall I Wear? this book includes some dated language that today’s reader will find antiquated at best, offensive at worst. There are cultural stereotypes, diet and exercise tips that we now recognize as body shaming, and archaic suggestions about dressing for your husband’s tastes rather than your own. At several moments, I questioned, “Is this really what Claire believed?” A conversation with the MCHC team revealed that, in fact, there were two voices at work here. According to the original manuscript, McCardell brought in a ghostwriter—a standard practice at the time, and necessary as McCardell was running her business and battling cancer when What Shall I Wear? came together. In her notes and early drafts of the book, McCardell’s voice is witty and modern, reflecting her desire to free women through her clothes. However, the ghostwriter, Edith Heal, had quite traditional views about femininity; Allison Tolman, the vice president of collections at the MCHC, explains this in the book’s useful afterword.
In today’s context, the book’s flaws are a striking reminder of where women were in the forties and fifties, but they’re also a testament to how far we’ve come. Of course, our work won’t be done until everyone can live—and dress—by their own rules. I’m of the belief that if we don’t know history, we’re bound to repeat it, and if McCardell were here now, I think she would give What Shall I Wear? a major revise. We wouldn’t just be on the same page, she would be turning the next one for us all—no doubt an even greater champion of women, creating even more beautiful clothes to uplift and empower us.
|September 4, 2022
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