A Look Into McCardell Exhibitions Past and Present
By Christina Pene, Sunday, April 2, 2023
Claire McCardell (1905–1958) is a name synonymous with American sportswear and innovation with fashion historians, though her legacy often goes unnoticed by the general public. Due to many archival holdings and past and current popular exhibitions, McCardell’s contributions to the fashion industry can be appreciated and revisited.
A bibliography highlighting McCardell’s work and additional research is available at the end of this blog post.
In 1987, the Museum at FIT hosted the first exhibition highlighting McCardell’s designs: Three Women: Kawakubo, Vionnet, McCardell, curated by Harold Koda, Laura Sinderbrand, and Richard Martin. The exhibition received renowned reviews and media attention, highlighting the work of three influential and innovative twentieth-century designers who brought attention to fashion by emphasizing women’s roles and ignoring gender stereotypes and misconceptions about fashion.
Fashion Historian Valerie Steele, the current director of The Museum at FIT, commented on the work of Richard Martin, stating that the curator viewed fashion from an angle that other curators did not. Steele’s book, Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designers, published with Rizzoli in 1991, was inspired by the curatorial work in the Three Women exhibition. Martin examined dress and costume through a lens that didn’t take itself too seriously, like how McCardell approached her designs. Martin aimed to have museum-goers question their prejudices about women designers for the Three Women exhibition.
Across the East River in New York City, The Brooklyn Museum is no stranger to McCardell and her legacy. The Museum featured the designer’s work in their 2010 exhibition American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection, highlighting McCardell’s work among first-generation American designers. American High Style drew attention to McCardell’s skill in creating women’s clothing that adhered to wartime rationings while still putting their comfort at the forefront; without lacking style. The archives of The Brooklyn Museum contain numerous original correspondences with the fashion designer.
As of November 2022, The Maryland Center for History and Costume in Baltimore highlights McCardell in their current exhibition, Claire / McCardell. McCardell was born in the city of Frederick, Maryland. The exhibition, curated by Robyn Levy, Tory Burch Claire McCardell Fashion Fellow, highlights the designer’s ready-to-wear innovations, including spaghetti straps, pockets on dresses, and her infamous ballet flats. The Maryland Center for History and Costume displays multiple McCardell designs alongside archival materials to give an insight into her life.
McCardell was no stranger to Museum exhibitions herself. The designer participated in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1950s show, Adam in the Looking Glass, alongside many other contemporary fashion designers. Adam in the Looking Glass highlighted over 600 years of menswear through historical and modern garments and paper documentation. The Metropolitan Museum of Art intended to have contemporary fashion designers in the historical show to create a link between the past, present, and future. Womenswear designers were the only ones asked to participate; The MET wanted to see what fashionable innovations womenswear designers could create for menswear of the 1950s through textiles and form.
Similarly, the Museum of Modern Art called upon the designer for their exhibition Are Clothes Modern? in 1944. The curator, Bernard Rudofsky, raised the question of whether or not women had freedom in their dress. McCardell created women’s garments that were different from the mainstream, Parisian fashion, using rectangles of fabric to make garments comfortable, affordable, and easy to wear for the exhibition, similar to the clothing she designed for the masses. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe was known to wear McCardell’s designs, and her collection was seen in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.
Claire McCardell: Practicality, Liberation, Innovation is the newest exhibition highlighting the designer and will be on display in April 2023 at the Gallery FIT in the main lobby of The Museum at FIT. The exhibition highlights McCardell’s designs and legacy by adding mid-20th-century advertisements that illustrate the designer’s influence and innovations from FIT’s Special Collections and College Archives. The nine displayed garments come from The Museum’s Study Collection.
For further reading, we have provided a Claire McCardell bibliography for your learning pleasure, which you can download here:
About the Author:
Christina Pene (she/her/hers) is a senior in the AHMP program and one of the curators of Claire McCardell: Practicality, Liberation, Innovation. Her areas of interest include 18th-century costume and portraiture, and she is passionate about making art history accessible through digital media. Christina hopes to find a career that marries these interests post-graduation.
Valerie Steele on Richard Martin, Artforum, February 2002.
Brush Kidwell, Claudia and Margaret Christman eds. Suiting Everyone. The Democratization of Fashion in America. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974.
Clark, Judith and Amy De La Haye with Jeffrey Horsley. Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Maglio, Diane. “A brief historical overview of the first major menswear exhibition in the United States–Adam in the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1950,” Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, 4:1 (2017), pp. 79-88, doi: 10.1386/csmf.4.1.79_1
Melchior, Marie Riegels and Birgitta Svensson, eds. Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Palmer, Alexandra and Valerie Steele, eds. Exhibitionism. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 12. Special Issue (2008).
Petrov, Julia. Fashion, History, Museums: Inventing the Display of Dress. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.
Vänskä, Annamari and Hazel Clark, eds. Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond. London et al. Bloomsbury, 2018 (2021, paperback).