She has been dismissed as a designer of homemaker frocks: plaid shirtwaist dresses worn by Betty Crocker moms and Mrs. Cleaver clones — the domestic uniform of the 1950s — a fallacy jimmy-rigged by an unwanted and unwarranted marketing campaign intent to tame her earnest appeal to the modern American woman, obscuring what was one of the most radical and innovative talents that post-war fashion, either American or European, had ever seen.
Claire McCardell is considered the mother of American fashion, and rightly so. As individualistic as her forbearers, Elizabeth Hawes and Valentina, she managed where they could not: in ready-to-wear, recognizing that market as a means to innovation in the same manner as Charles and Ray Eames who re-envisioned architecture and industrial design; unapologetically pragmatic, distinctly American, poetic in its succinctness, enlightened in its push towards the future.
She eschewed Paris fashion, and fashion altogether, and like her peer Bonnie Cashin, she sought to define a new code informed by the real lives and needs of an emerging and active modern American woman, not by the affected residue of Parisian chic, an impulse that at the time was widely obliged but nonetheless ineffective.
She established the blueprint for American fashion, its own semantics and epistemology, a system of beliefs based not on function, but purpose, not simplicity but an effortless beauty; an elegance requiring no frills and thrills, only the dramatic impact of point, line and plane, of humble fabrics and perfect proportions; supposing that that is all a woman really needs. Her ways were as radical then as they are perhaps now, favoring ease over extravagance, triumphant in her design solutions, discarding the most familiar references for the sake of progress. She was avant-garde in the truest sense of the word, she forged the path forward.
If contemporary American fashion has lost sight of what McCardell once ardently fought for, what she almost lost her career and her life to pursue, one needs only to consider the fantastic minimalism of Halston, the bold futurism of Rudi Gernreich, the feminism of Norma Kamali, the virtuosity of Mizrahi, the sensuality of Donna Karan, the intellect of Geoffrey Beene, the matter-o-factness of Anne Klein, the rebellion of Stephen Sprouse, the perfection of Matthew Ames, the purity of Calvin Klein, the sincerity of Ralph Lauren, the wit of Perry Ellis, all of whom are indebted to her ouvre, to her fascinations with modern femininity, intwined with true blue contemporary life, as she created the American Look and as it finally dawned on a country desperate to find its own identity and startled to realize it had one.