• michaelakzee

Claire McCardell and the American Look

Updated: Jul 12

An analysis of the Popover dress.



As an alternative to the cinched waists and elongated figures in 1940’s fashion, the American Look — a style of leisure and simplicity — emerged with modern silhouettes that supported the female figure rather than repressed it. One of the most prominent styles of the American Look was Claire McCardell’s “Popover.” In the advertisement, McCardell’s Popover dress addressed this utilitarian aesthetic placed upon women during World War II. With its cotton fabric and checkerboard patterns, complemented by a matching oven mitt and large pocket, the Popover dress provided women with a chic, yet practical ensemble that could easily accommodate typical household chores. Through her innovative design of the Popover and reformation of 20th century dress, Claire McCardell not only contributed to this new perception of womenswear in society, she personified this American Look. 


Although the Popover dress was designed in 1942, Lord & Taylor, as seen at the bottom of the advertisement, did not feature McCardell’s collections for Townley Frocks until 1945. The phrase, “American Look,” was even dubbed by Lord & Taylor executive Dorothy Shaver for McCardell’s collection. [1] With the Popover priced at $6.95 in the ad, the image indicates that this was one of the initial releases of this design; the original garment was priced at a lower rate due to its classification as a utility garment. Therefore, the advertisement itself is approximately from 1945. 


During World War II (1939-1945), restrictions on resources were implemented due to increased material shortages, causing limitations on what designers could use to fabricate their garments. In particular, British fashion was designing utility garments with the identification of the Civilian Clothing 1941 label — a double crescent “CC41” symbol. The Board of Trade later issued the Making of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions Order) on British fashion in 1942, [2] which consisted of a list of restraints for designers in order to reduce labor and unnecessary material use. This led to the development of newer fabrics in Great Britain, including “fibro” — a synthetic material mainly derived from wood — that was created to help the government preserve more wool. [3] Through the General Limitation Order L-85, issued by the US War Production Board in 1942, designers were prohibited from creating full evening dresses — along with cuffs and overskirts — in order to prevent any wasteful cutting. [4] In response to these fabric-saving regulations, American designers and manufacturers reverted from designing extravagant fashion and mainly directed their craft towards more functional, slightly simplified apparel. Furthermore, women were also beginning to enter the workforce while men departed for war. As a safety precaution for factory work, women were usually required to conceal their hair and wear proper clothing that would not interfere with productivity or the machinery. Therefore, trousers, shirtwaist dresses, and other casual forms of attire became acceptable for womenswear in the United States. Style did not have to be sacrificed, though, in order to achieve this practical fashion aesthetic. American designers still incorporated desirable silhouettes into their lines while utilizing more abundant, approved materials such as cotton. The emergence of separates and sportswear also emphasized the versatile possibilities of this utilitarian style. 


Claire McCardell (1905-1958) was one of the most notable sportswear designers, especially during the war. As a woman herself, McCardell empathized with American women and these unrealistic standards placed upon the female appearance through dress, including corseted waists and other constricting silhouettes. She remarked that “problems are the basis for many design ideas” [5] and that the “American woman is a more casual, less self-conscious wearer of clothes than the European.” [6] From her playsuits to interchangeable blouses, McCardell created designs that could be worn in comfort, while also maintaining sense-making style at an affordable price. [7]


The Popover dress, in particular, provided women with ease by simply slipping on the dress and remaining “presentable” to potential guests. Harper’s Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland, requested a design that women were capable of using to prep for dinner parties in while still looking sophisticated, [8] which challenged McCardell to eventually construct her Popover dress in 1942. McCardell’s inspiration for the “Popover” was directed towards helping housewives with their daily chores while men were fighting overseas amid World War II. The wrap-front design element allowed a more adjustable fit that could make the silhouette either form-fitting or boxier if desired, and enabled its wearer to wear the dress on its own or as a cover-up. McCardell “envied the ease and pragmatism of men’s clothing,” [9] such as their large pockets, so the Popover dress featured an oversized pocket sewn along the side. The oven mitt also functioned as an accessory that was both decorative and pragmatic, with its matching checkerboard pattern and quilted structure for durability. 


The Popover dress captured the American Look through its simplified, yet innovative design. McCardell stated that “‘clothes may make the woman, but the woman can also make the clothes.’” [10] Even though fashion typically develops an aesthetic or trend that women should follow, McCardell yearned for clothing that could be useful and comfortable for women and make them feel liberated. These designs by Claire McCardell adapted to the arising conflicts throughout the war — including the limitation on resources — but also introduced women to a more freeing style that supported the activities they pursued; natural waists and flexibility were becoming more prominent within their ensembles. Even though Diane Von Furstenberg is credited with the notorious invention of the “wrap dress” in 1974, [11] the silhouette of McCardell’s Popover dress bears a similar resemblance to what could be classified as the “wrap” construction. McCardell introduced her “Popover” design approximately 32 years before DVF’s wrap dress, and with its enveloping, almost swaddle-like quality, this arguably makes McCardell the true originator of the wrap-around garment. 


Although the “Popover” was presented in varying patterns, its primary medium was washable cotton — one of the main fabrics of American fashion. Manufacturers and designers used abundances of cotton for their designs [12] due to its supple, lightweight material that could easily be thrown in the wash. Printings on cotton were also popular for utility clothing, and stressed the simplification of designs as the government took over more copper rollers for the war. [13] McCardell often used cotton for her garments, as well other heavy-duty fabrics that were accessible for both designers and their eventual consumers, including denim and gingham. Through designers like McCardell, the American Look “embraced a politics of fit predicated on the three-dimensionality of the body and the processes of material fabrication.” [14]


In regards to the advertisement for the Popover dress, the image illustrates what was expected of women during the war. The phrase, “Household device de-luxe for busy women,” shows how utility garments like the Popover dress were considered fashionable tools for women. During World War II, Vogue began to publish articles and editorials with headlines related to women in the workforce, including “A Sound Plan for the Year-Round Wardrobe of the Woman with a Job” [15] (circa 1943), and “Take a Job! Release a Man to Fight!” [16] These depictions of female workers not only encouraged women to join the labor force, it also enforced the idea that women were capable of their own independence. And yet, women were still expected to perform domestic duties as housewives as well, such as taking care of the family and hosting dinner parties. This advertisement is a representation of how fashion began to embrace functionality over extravagance within womenswear —along with women performing duties outside the home — but also maintaining this persona of the ideal American wife. 


Claire McCardell merged functionality and feminine appeal into cohesive sportswear ensembles, which shifted the perception of womenswear in American fashion. Through her Popover dress, she addressed the needs of women during World War II by creating a garment that was both simple and pragmatic for the working woman. The advertisement from approximately 1945 also portrays the reform of dress through “liberating” silhouettes that were casual and accessible to women, but still reiterated these family values through the functions of a housewife. With its additions of the large pocket and oven mitt, the “Popover” highlights how practical McCardell’s designs were for women, while still possessing a more feminine quality. This contribution to fashion, one that exudes both leisure and style in American womenswear, emphasizes McCardell’s complete embodiment of the American Look.


[1] Strassel, Annemarie. "Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion." Women's Studies Quarterly 41, no. 1/2 (2012): 35-59. Accessed April 20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23611770. 42.

[2] Mendes, Valerie D., and Amy De la Haye. Fashion since 1900. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010, 112.

[3] “Fabric Fashions: Wood Fiber Fabric Fashions Exhibited in Great Britain.” Women’s Wear Daily. Dec 23, 1942, 14. Accessed April 20, 2020.

[4] Mendes, Valerie D., and Amy De la Haye. Fashion since 1900, 119.

[5] "Claire McCardell Declares Design Based on Problems." Women’s Wear Daily, Mar 08, 1944, 3. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://login.libproxy.newschool.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.newschool.edu/docview/1653737836?accountid=12261.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “FASHION: The American Look.” Time. Time Inc., May 2, 1955. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,866314-1,00.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dickinson, Elizabeth Evitts. “The Designer Who Radically Suggested That Women Should Wear What's Comfortable.” The Washington Post Magazine. WP Company, December 12, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2018/12/12/feature/the-designer-who-radically-suggested-that-women-should-wear-whats-comfortable/.

[10] “FASHION: The American Look.” Time.

[11] Harper, Marques. “Diane Von Furstenberg, Creator of the Wrap Dress, Is a Champion for Women's Causes. What Else Does Her Future Hold?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2020.

[12] Mendes, Valerie D., and Amy De la Haye. Fashion since 1900, 120.

[13] "Fabric Fashions: Future Cotton Printings to Stress Classics" Women’s Wear Daily, Dec 23, 1942, 14.

[14] Strassel, Annemarie. "Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion." Women's Studies Quarterly 41, 41. 

[15] Cardon, Lauren S. "Conclusion: The Depression and the Dawn of American Designers." In Fashion and Fiction: Self-Transformation in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 167-84. University of Virginia Press, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1b4cxgx.11.

[16] Ibid.

Bibliography


Cardon, Lauren S. "Conclusion: The Depression and the Dawn of American Designers." In Fashion and Fiction: Self-Transformation in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 167-84. University of Virginia Press, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1b4cxgx.11.


"Claire McCardell Declares Design Based on Problems." Women’s Wear Daily, Mar 08, 1944, 3. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://login.libproxy.newschool.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.newschool.edu/docview/1653737836?accountid=12261.

Dickinson, Elizabeth Evitts. “The Designer Who Radically Suggested That Women Should Wear What's Comfortable.” The Washington Post Magazine. WP Company, December 12, 2018. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2018/12/12/feature/the-designer-who-radically-suggested-that-women-should-wear-whats-comfortable/.

"Fabric Fashions: Future Cotton Printings to Stress Classics." Women’s Wear Daily, Dec 23, 1942, 14. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://login.libproxy.newschool.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.newschool.edu/docview/1653847914?accountid=12261.


“Fabric Fashions: Wood Fiber Fabric Fashions Exhibited in Great Britain.” Women’s Wear Daily. Dec 23, 1942, 14. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://login.libproxy.newschool.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.newschool.edu/docview/1653847914?accountid=12261.


“FASHION: The American Look.” Time. Time Inc., May 2, 1955. Accessed April 20, 2020. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,866314-1,00.html.


Harper, Marques. “Diane Von Furstenberg, Creator of the Wrap Dress, Is a Champion for Women's Causes. What Else Does Her Future Hold?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/fashion/la-ig-diane-von-furstenberg-20180309-htmlstory.html.


Mendes, Valerie D., and Amy De la Haye. Fashion since 1900. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. 


Strassel, Annemarie. "Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion." Women's Studies Quarterly 41, no. 1/2 (2012): 35-59. Accessed April 20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23611770.


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