Research Spotlight: Claire McCardell and the Ballet Flat

An interview with fashion historian Julie Eilber

Over the coming months, we’ll be highlighting the research we have undertaken while preparing our checklist for Items: Is Fashion Modern? The exhibition centers upon just over 100 items of fashion design, from haute couture to humble masterpieces. One of these items is the versatile and much-loved ballet flat. Many of you will know (and wear) contemporary versions, but how many know in which era the ballet shoe crossed over from the world of dance to the world of fashion and, eventually, ubiquity? We think the decade was the 1940s and, along with legendary designer and Ukrainian émigrée Valentina Schlee, one of the earliest fashion designers to see the potential of the ballet slipper as womenswear was the American designer Claire McCardell, who collaborated with longstanding ballet shoe manufacturer Capezio.

As part of our research into the shoe we spoke with Julie Eilber, who was gracious enough to share her expertise, archive, and enthusiasm with us. (We’re all big fans of McCardell on the exhibition team — as was Bernard Rudofsky, the curator of MoMA’s 1944 Are Clothes Modern? exhibition, who included her work in his catalogue.) She also played a vital role in helping us locate a pair of McCardell’s ballet flats in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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For those who don’t know McCardell’s work, can you introduce her in five key sentences?

Claire McCardell is probably the most iconic American fashion designer you’ve never heard of. She was the mother of modern casual and activewear, so if you’re a woman who’s donned ballet flats, hoodies, capri yoga pants, or wrap dresses recently — or packed a suitcase full of knitwear for travel — you’re living her legacy.

Claire McCardell c. 1950. Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

McCardell believed that modern, sporty women (like her) should dress in natural, freeing “clothes that move.” Her garments were equipped with large pockets and made from practical, easy-care fabrics such as quilting cottons, denim, men’s suiting wools, jersey, and synthetics. But her innate style and draping prowess turned these humble fabrics into alluring, body-conscious, and feminine fashions that always had a hint of sex.

A southern “steel magnolia” and hard worker, McCardell was wildly popular in her day, winning the Coty Award and making the cover of Time Magazine. She became one of the first female fashion moguls, achieving both her name on her label and a stake in her company by midcentury.

Fashion historians agree that she was one of the most influential designers of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, with as big an impact on the look of the 20th century as architect Frank Lloyd Wright or industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

What first ignited your passion for McCardell as a subject?

I’d written for television and magazines for years, doing fashion segments for CBS Morning News and biographical documentaries for the Smithsonian. After my son was born, I started an irreverent blog, Jet Set Sewing, where I would go on eBay and bid on rare home sewing patterns by famous 20th-century designers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Charles James, or Edith Head.

Then, for better or worse, I’d try to reconstruct the designs using a hobbyist’s sewing machine. I’d learned to sew as a child, so I would use vintage construction methods ranging from home economics to haute couture, and would honestly report to readers whether the results were great — or a disaster.

To my complete surprise, the blog attracted an avid worldwide following of vintage fashion and #makersmovement fans, as well as ongoing sponsorship from an upscale sewing machine company, which now promotes my blog to more than 175,000 readers.

I was aware of McCardell’s work from my fashion history research, and had fallen for her spare yet rich designs. From my sewing experience, I could see how the choices she’d made when selecting and manipulating fabric (turning stripes “on the bias” to make a chevron, for example) had affected both the aesthetics and the feel of the garments. She created almost origami-like designs — with a dash of Americana — and I really, really wanted to wear them.

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

When I discovered that more than 15 of her iconic garments had been released as home sewing patterns in the ’50s, I went on a hunt to find them all, messaging fellow pattern collectors, and bidding sometimes more than $200 per pattern on eBay.

I tracked down her surviving family and rooted through her archives, hoping to find more patterns stashed away. Instead, I found the story of her life, starting with letters from Paris in the ’20s and ending with notes and memories jotted to herself when she was close to death from cancer in the ’50s.

Right away, I realized that this wasn’t just a tale of “fashion designer made good.” It was about McCardell’s life as a flapper in Paris and career girl in the Depression-era garment district; as lover, then wife, to a complicated man — and stepmother to his children; as a free-spirited friend to the Algonquin crowd and breakout designer during World War II; and ultimately as a shrewd businesswoman in the ’50s.

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

I decided to pursue a book that would have the feel of walking through the early 20th century with her, featuring the rare sewing patterns, clothing, accessories, press photos, McCardell paper dolls, and fashion catalogs I’d been collecting.

My inspiration was a similar biography with sewing patterns, Madeleine Vionnet, by Betty Kirke, a cult classic which is still considered a major resource for fashion historians more than 25 years after it was first published. The recent reissue now sells for $150.

Which piece of hers that you own is your favorite and why? Which piece have you searched for/yearned for for years but don’t yet have?

It’s impossible to choose a favorite, because just about everything in the collection is a puzzle piece in her history. I have rayon dresses with her signature neck bows from the ’40s, a voluminous dirndl skirt that was one of her first design sensations in the ’30s, several of her feminine “Kitchen Dinner Dresses” (for the young homemaker who entertained without help), a late 40s “Popover” wrap dress, soft suits for the “career girl,” and a chic wartime coat that was manufactured within government rationing restrictions.

I’m particularly fond of the original playsuit garments I’ve found, including a ’40s “Kiss Me Kate” romper with a scanty bodice, puffy striped shorts, and McCardell’s famous pockets. There was always an element of fun to her designs that allowed women of that era to loosen up a little bit. The sewing on this piece is amazing — lots of gathering and binding, narrow, expertly crafted welt pockets with a hidden zipper, and 10 hand-created thread button loops. McCardell designed for mass manufacturing, but nowadays you just don’t see this kind of skilled detail in industrial sewing. A piece like this would only be offered by a high-end designer in today’s fashion market.

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

As for what I’d like to add to my collection, there are several more McCardell sewing patterns I’ve yet to find, but my online followers are quick to alert me when they see them come up for sale, so I haven’t given up hope!

Tell us about your process of reinterpreting McCardell’s patterns. Which has been your most successful to date?

I’ll admit I always get a thrill when I first open one of the McCardell home sewing patterns from the ’50s. They contain tissue-paper templates of her garment pieces with a dressmakers’ instruction sheet, so it’s like a treasure map full of insight into the original design. One discovery was that her famous pocket pieces are more than a foot long, allowing an independent woman room for a lipstick, comb, “mad money,” and keys — and in the case of an inherently shy woman like McCardell — a place to put her hands when she felt self-conscious.

Since the tissue pieces are so rare and delicate, I immediately trace them onto pattern-making paper and put them away. These old patterns have a series of circles, triangles, and squares punched in them that I’ve learned to interpret, so I make notes on the tracings indicating the grainline of the fabric and the placement of the pockets, for example.

Then I usually create a “muslin” or “toile” test version of the garment — an haute couture method that helps with these challenging patterns. I use a tracing wheel and coated paper to copy the pattern pieces onto inexpensive muslin, then cut the pieces out and sew them together to check the fit and construction order. I write a lot of notes directly onto the test fabric, then take the whole thing apart and use the muslin pieces as the final pattern.

Only then do I cut the fashion fabric and sew together the actual garment, confident that my “test run” has helped me figure out the idiosyncrasies of the design. I try to use as many of the vintage techniques in the original pattern instructions as I can, but they can be tricky!

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

When I made up this pattern of McCardell’s “Greek Revival” dress for my sister, Janet Eilber, the instructions had me put the large pattern pieces together first, and only then work on the small details — so I ended sewing with four yards of wool jersey in my lap for several long (and hot) days. Ultimately the reconstruction was a success, and Janet, who is artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, looked both vintage and modern when she spoke at the Museum at FIT’s Dance and Fashion exhibition. The design was fitting, because in the ’40s and ’50s, magazines often compared the spare aesthetic of Claire McCardell’s designs with Martha Graham’s pared-down choreography. In Janet’s view, “both Martha and Claire were searching for simplicity — a stripping away of façade or decoration — that was borne out of America’s frontier mentality and risk-taking athleticism.”

When reconstructing McCardell’s earlier designs, which aren’t represented by sewing patterns, I use several methods. For the jacket I’m wearing in this photo, I traced the seamlines and design elements of an original McCardell jacket in my collection, and created the pattern myself by studying the garment inside and out. (It’s supposed to be a prototype, but I love it so much that I wear it all the time.)

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

I reconstructed the angular scarf using McCardell’s sketches and notes from her first collection in 1931, since the original no longer exists. Her notes called for “Canton Crêpe” (an obsolete silk garment fabric) in the Art Deco tones of green, rust, and brown. I substituted modern silk crêpe de chine, and was amazed that an 85-year-old design could look like something that would sell at Bloomingdales today.

Why do you think McCardell has such a passionate following?

McCardell’s impact on modern fashion was never really forgotten by historians, even though her name faded with the public after her death.

What’s changed in the past 10 years is that highly visual social media platforms, such as Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook groups, and blogs have suddenly made fashion history more accessible to vintage enthusiasts around the world. Photos of McCardell’s designs, once confined to out-of-print books, vintage magazines, museums, and private collections, are now circulating freely through social media, and so she’s being rediscovered.

When a McCardell creation is posted on Instagram, or a Facebook group like We Sew Retro Sew and Tell, it introduces her designs to thousands of vintage fashion fans. People tend to fall for her universally appealing fashions just by looking at a picture, so images like these are playing a role in bringing back the McCardell name.

And why do you think she is perhaps not as well known as she could/should be, considering her impact?

Even though McCardell was one of the first American designers to license her name on sunglasses, gloves, jewelry, and baby shoes, her untimely death in the ’50s was right before fashion companies had figured out how to keep a designer’s name working as a “brand” even after their death. Her company, Townley, tried to keep the McCardell label going posthumously with designers such as Mildred Orrick and Arnold Scaasi, but ultimately they couldn’t sustain the line without McCardell’s gift.

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

At one point in the ’80s, a rogue company tried to bring back her label with some horrible designs, and the McCardell family shut them down. In a way, it’s a good thing, because her legacy wasn’t diluted by bad design after her death.

What factors do you think accounted for McCardell’s extremely forward-thinking approach to women’s clothing?

McCardell grew up a conservative banker’s daughter in the small-town south, but she was from an active, sporty family. She had a unique sense of style from childhood, so she learned to sew from a dressmaker who would come to the house for week to outfit the family. Though her mother was a belle from Mississippi with a houseful of servants, her father saw to it that Claire got a college education and an independent outlook.

By the ’20s, Claire was a young flapper studying at Parsons in Paris, sketching Rubens’ Marie de’ Medici cycle of paintings at the Louvre and being dragged to the 1926 Autumn Salon, where she thought the cubist paintings were “the vilest things.” She basically taught herself to design by ripping apart the bargain samples by Vionnet and Chanel that were available to the eager students at the end of the season.

All of these experiences melded into McCardell’s practical yet modernist approach to clothing design. She called it “solving problems,” and used her own sporty background and travels to create clothes with practical pockets and easy closures for an independent woman to handle herself. By her mid-20s, she had developed her own confident vision for her designs.

If you look at some of her garments from the mid-’30s, which are in the online collection of The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, the designs seem so familiar, though at the time the department store buyers considered them too radical to sell. But McCardell’s philosophy was to design for herself, so she road tested the samples in her own wardrobe.

I like to think of her boarding the SS Paris in November of 1934, returning to the US from the French collections, most likely carrying a small bag containing her set of jersey “black matches,” which included a tulip skirt, halter, cropped jacket, overcoat with bow neckline, and wide slacks, all fastened with military brass buttons, along with a striped-silk bias-cut “dinner suit.” In those days, people would lug huge steamer trunks onboard the weeklong ocean crossing, so her small “carry-on” wardrobe of jerseys and light silk evening wear would have been far ahead of its time.

Through online snooping, I managed to find that ship’s manifest, and discovered that Claire was traveling in first class with her lifelong friend and Parson’s schoolmate Josette, later known as designer Joset Walker. Fellow passengers included Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn, along with Irving Harris, a dashing architect with “a past,” who was destined to become the love of her life.

One can only imagine how she mixed and matched those versatile pieces for each night’s formal dinner, then dressed them down for her afternoons while stretching her legs (and probably flirting) on the sports deck!

How would you describe McCardell’s legacy? What impact has she had on contemporary fashion — both on specific designers and in terms of design elements?

McCardell either created or popularized so many elements of the modern wardrobe that I spot her designs all over the world, whether walking down Newbury Street in Boston, La Brea Avenue in LA, rue de Seine in Paris, or Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires.

She gave women comfortable wrap dresses in the ’40s — years before Diane von Furstenberg brought them back in the ’70s; jersey capris and playsuits that still inspire modern activewear brands like Lululemon; and “mix and match” separates almost 50 years before Donna Karan’s famous “seven easy pieces.”

Probably McCardell’s most ubiquitous invention was the knit hoodie. She loved to ski (though she never was that good), so she sewed a hood to a wool jersey sweater to keep her ears warm. She was always a little ahead of her time, so the design was initially derided as her “Superman” hood.

Of course, now some of the most influential people in the world wear hoodies to work — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg springs to mind. Just last year I bought a Patagonia merino jersey base layer top with a hood that reminded me of McCardell’s original design. Sure enough, more than 70 years after she created it, it kept my ears nice and warm under my ski helmet, and looked chic as well.

Tell us when you first saw our wonderful ballet slippers. How long had you known they were there?

I’ll admit I’ve spent hours on end studying the online collection of The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. With photos of garments by most on the major 20th-century designers, it’s a critical resource for fashion history writers. They have a large collection of McCardell garments — many donated from her personal wardrobe.

As I was working on the McCardell reconstructions, I would look closely at the photos showing the front, side, back, and accessories from each outfit, studying the structure of the seams, the bias cut, the top-stitching, and other “McCardellisms,” as she called them.

One famous ensemble, for the ’40s co-ed, included a full-length ballet-inspired bodysuit of wool jersey, covered by a Tabard-style woven wool dress. The bodysuit idea originally came from McCardell’s friend, designer Mildred Orrick, but the outfit in the Met is McCardell’s design. The concept was so fashion-forward that it made the cover of Life Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

Looking through my personal collection of original press photos, I found a ’40s design made from the same wool as the Tabard outfit at the Met, and noticed it had matching wool ballet flats. So I went to back to metmuseum.org to look at the Tabard ensemble again. By clicking through the accompanying photos, I was thrilled to spot the elusive shoes!

How did McCardell’s ballet slipper fit within the context of her clothing designs and her overall approach to women’s fashion?

American fashion really came into its own during World War II, despite the fabric rationing that reined in the garment industry and limited the rubber and leather needed for shoes. Before the war, American manufacturers mostly created bad knock-offs of Paris fashions. McCardell herself had been trained at Parsons to be a “sketcher” — an art-school girl who would sneak into the Paris fashion shows to make surreptitious drawings of the latest styles for the New York manufacturers to copy. But those designs, created for French dowagers, didn’t fit the youthful zest of the American lifestyle.

Once France was mobilized in the early ’40s, the Paris fashion industry collapsed, and the passenger ships between the US and Europe stopped running, so American designers finally had a chance to front their own fashion lines.

At the time, McCardell had a somewhat checkered reputation on Seventh Avenue — her maverick ideas had already brought down one fashion house — so she was laboring in obscurity with Norman Norell and Hollywood costumer Travis Banton at society doyenne Hattie Carnegie’s dress salon. Diana Vreeland, who had just been appointed fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, spotted McCardell’s talent, and soon tapped her to help the garment industry create a new “American Look.”

Vreeland herself was part of a cartel of powerhouse women who got together to promote American designers during war. It included PR dynamo Eleanor Lambert, modernist photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and visionary Lord & Taylor fashion buyer Marjorie Griswold, all of whom embraced McCardell’s streamlined look.

Vreeland is generally credited with tasking McCardell to create the smash-hit “Popover” dress — a smock-like wrap dress originally designed for the socialite forced to do her own wartime housework. Ultimately it caught on with the “Rosie the Riveters” in the factories as well, and more than 75,000 were sold the first year.

Street shoes were severely rationed, but dance shoes — like ballet slippers — were not. Vreeland started showing ballet shoes as streetwear in Harper’s Bazaar, with McCardell taking them to the next level by commissioning Salvatore Capezio to make the slippers in fabrics matching her garments. They were such a hit on the street that even McCardell was surprised. In the ’70s anthology American Fashion, Life Magazine fashion editor Sally Kirkland quoted Claire as saying, “I meant them for the home or the country club, not the subway.”

The shoes took off because they were practical, chic, and easy to wear — McCardell’s hallmarks as a designer. She was a big believer in having women feel active, healthy, and comfortable in their skin — so she promoted low-heeled shoes, and eschewed tight undergarments. Indeed, the first thing she would do with her models is make them stop wearing bras, which was one of the reasons her jersey swimwear was considered scandalous!

Photo courtesy of Julie Eilber. All rights reserved

The ballet slipper is now a staple item in women’s fashion. Are there any other such staples that you believe McCardell to have contributed to?

There are so many! Trapeze dresses, “mix-and-match” travel separates, hoodies, stacked “junk” jewelry, peasant dresses, “wash and wear” outfits, wrap dresses, flats, infinity wraps, topstitched denim jackets for women, dance-inspired activewear, modernist shrugs and ponchos, wide “gaucho belts” and leather wristbands, waterproof skiwear, menswear-inspired suits, form-fitting swimwear, comfortable jumpsuits, wide elastic waistbands and tube tops, travel clothes for the red-eye — and that’s just off the top of my head!

Finally, anything else you want to tell us that we have forgotten to ask?

Researching a biography has changed so dramatically in the past 15 years. The amount of historical materials available online now is both thrilling — and overwhelming.

I started my research in the traditional way, reading the available books and articles about McCardell, then reviewing boxes and boxes of primary source materials and ephemera in person at her archives. But when it came time to put her story together, I discovered as much or more information online.

I located her surviving family by googling obituaries, and used that information to track descendants down via LinkedIn. By searching on genealogy websites, I found online census records that listed McCardell’s addresses, salary, even roommate information — so I learned she that had lived with designer Mildred Orrick and Mildred’s mother for most of her twenties.

By searching newspaper websites, I found press coverage of McCardell’s collections through the years, as well as the story of her husband’s stormy first marriage to an heiress. Using Google Maps, I quickly confirmed that McCardell’s country house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, was a stone’s throw from Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, which explained her connection to the members of the Algonquin crowd who had migrated there.

I researched Paris in the ’20s by reading works such as Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London on my computer via Google books, and easily found a download of designer Elizabeth Hawes’s out-of-print book Fashion Is Spinach on Amazon, which gave me a play-by-play of the life of an art-school “sketcher” like McCardell.

I acquired most of the original McCardell garments, patterns, and ephemera in my collection by obsessively searching (and aggressively bidding) on eBay, where, unfortunately for my budget, I tended to go a little overboard.

Fair to say that studying McCardell’s life has become a highly enjoyable addiction for me. I’ll readily admit that it’s difficult to come back to the 21st century when I’m deep in the story of this groundbreaking American woman and her era!