Meet Claire McCardell- The Mother of American Sportswear

Posted by Fleur De Riche on December 07th 2022

Meet Claire McCardell- The Mother of American Sportswear

When we think of female American designers, Claire McCardell is in a league of her own. She’s considered 

the mother of American sportswear with her influence still being felt within the industry today. Without Claire 

McCardell, we might not be enjoying the era of activewear of today.

-8 minute read.


She was a  maverick of 1940s and 50s fashion and set the tone for mid-20th century fashion as the role of women in society evolved. Her legacy includes introducing ballet flats as everyday shoes, incorporating pockets into womenswear, and using fabric draping to accentuate the natural figure of women’s bodies.

By looking at the career of Claire McCardell, we get a deeper appreciation of women in fashion. We’re examining the career of Claire McCardell, her greatest achievements, how she empowered women, and her continued influence within the fashion industry.

Who was Claire McCardell?


No analysis of women’s fashion history is complete without Claire McCardell. Born in Maryland, Claire quickly gained a reputation for knowing her own mind and not being pushed around. She even got the nickname ‘Kick’ as a child for not being afraid to show the boys who was boss.

At 18, she moved to New York to study fashion at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, now known as Parsons. She continued her studies at Place des Vosges in Paris. During this time, she was influenced by European designers like Madeleine Vionnet, considered an ‘architect amongst dressmakers’ for her Grecian-inspired dresses.

The European Muses of McCardell’s Designs

McCardell graduated with a certification in costume design, but it would take almost a decade for her to start working as an assistant designer for Robert Turk who brought her to the brand Townley Frocks. As a designer, McCardell traveled frequently to Europe in search of inspiration.

Her designs in the 1930s focused on structural silhouettes, incorporating menswear elements as were being shown in Paris. McCardell’s first ‘it’ design was the  ‘Monastic Dress’ with a tentlike shape as it didn’t feature a structured waistline. The dress sold out within a day and was quickly replicated by other brands, eventually leading to the closure of Townley Frocks.

McCardell moved on to work with Hattie Carnegie and met Harper’s Bazaar’s, Diana Vreeland. From 1940 onwards, McCardell moved away from Parisian influences. When Townley Frocks was reopened, it launched under new management with the name ‘Claire McCardell Clothes by Townley’. It made McCardell one of the first American designers to be given this form of name recognition for their designs.


Claire McCardell’s Influence on the Fashion Industry

WW2 would prove to be a coming-of-age era for McCardell’s designs. Without access to Parisian fashion, she started to approach more accessible fabrics like wool and denim. She helped to make ballet flats popular long before Audrey Hepburn wore them in Sabrina.

During the 1940s, McCardell released several of her most famous designs, including the  ‘Kitchen Dinner Dress’ that incorporated an attached apron into a full skirt. Her ‘Popover Dress’ was made as a versatile design for women to wear for any occasion, whether they were hosting a cocktail party or cooking dinner.

Her influence on American womenswear in this era got her a spot as an ‘American Look’ designer at Lord & Taylor. She quickly began to accumulate awards, including the Best Sportswear Designer Award in 1946.

With her growing popularity, McCardell became a partner at Townley and was named ‘Women of the Year’ by the Women’s National Press Club. At a 1953 exhibition to celebrate 20 years of her designs, McCardell was praised as being “to America what Vionnet was to France” by Stanley Marcus.

McCardell’s final collection would be released in 1957 and was completed when she was in hospital for treatment of terminal cancer. Her fashion label was closed after her death, instead of being continued under new management as brands like Chanel and Saint Laurent did.


How Claire McCardell Empowered Women

Claire McCardell empowered women by creating designs that allowed women to embrace their femininity while meeting the changing roles of women in society. Her designs were made with functionality in mind and a silhouette that showed the female form with a versatile sportswear look. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that McCardell changed what every American woman had in her closet.

Breaking away from corsets and girdles, McCardell brought an era of sundresses, wool bathing suits, and wrap dresses. If you’re a lover of dresses with pockets, you can thank Claire McCardell for using pockets in virtually every design she made. One of her simplest but most effective innovations was moving dress zippers to the side instead of the back to allow women to dress themselves without needing help.

Life Magazine named her as one of the 10 most important Americans of the 20thcentury and her ‘Popover Dress’ and ‘Monastic Dress’ are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their cultural significance.

Luxury designer brands today are still looking back at Claire McCardell’s work for inspiration. American designers like Cynthia Rowley, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan count Claire McCardell amongst their design influences. One of America’s most famous female designers, Anna Sui, based her 1999 Spring/Summer collection on McCardell’s most iconic designs.

Without Claire McCardell, the womenswear collections of today could have looked unrecognizable to us. Originally inspired by Parisian fashion, McCardell would go on to revolutionize the world of American womenswear with versatile designs that gave women a sense of independence and empowerment. With her fingers on the pulse of American society, her designs reflected the desire amongst women to have more flexible clothing that reflected their growing freedom within the home and the world of work.

When we consider women in fashion, Claire McCardell will forever be one of the founding mothers of sportswear and modern womenswear. Most of the clothing you have in your closet has likely been influenced by McCardell, whether it’s your favorite ballet flats or your go-to wrap dress. McCardell will always be at the heart of women’s fashion history and the style revolution of the mid-20th century.