FASHION: The American Look

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When it came time to work up her winter cruise collection, Claire McCardell started using the same loose lines. Geiss tried to steer her off, arguing that the model had been copied to death. But Claire would not listen. Result: Geiss lost all that he had made on the Monastic dress and, on the verge of a nervous collapse, closed up shop.

"Go Shoot Craps." Claire went to work for Hattie Carnegie, but her dresses were too simple for the rich tastes of the Carnegie carriage trade, and in 1940, after a year and a half, Designer McCardell quit by mutual agreement. Then, after turning out some potboiler designs for a small manufacturer, she heard from Geiss again. He had recovered his health and his nerve, and found a new partner in Adolph I. Klein, a suave, confident ex-salesman who never seems perturbed by the risks of the business. Geiss and Klein needed a designer, and asked Claire's most recent boss how she had done. Said he: "If I were you, I'd go shoot craps with the money. It's not as much of a gamble as Claire McCardell." Nevertheless, Claire was hired back to Townley. Says Klein: "In this business, you have to be exciting or basic. I figured we were too small to be basic, so we had to be exciting."

Designer McCardell saw to it that they got excitement. Breaking away from the Paris trend, she started designing dresses without shoulder pads. Geiss and Klein had to dash around to buyers assuring them that shoulder pads were available for those who wanted them (most did, since McCardell was at least five years ahead of the field). But Townley, with Klein handling the business side, made money, and has continued to do so ever since.

Its success was due not only to Claire McCardell's talent but to her sharp eye for opportunity. When World War II closed down the Paris fashion market, one retailer said: "The American garment industry is now in a position to show whether it can make a silk dress or whether it will be a sow's ear." Designer McCardell made a silk dress with a special wartime twist—a long kitchen-dinner dress of tie silk, with apron to match, for women who were forced to be their own maids. When Harper's Bazaar asked her to make something in which women could do their housework and still look smart, Claire obliged with the "Popover," a wraparound, coverall sort of dress in denim that sold for $6.95. Townley sold 75,000 of the first Popover model, and McCardell has had a variation of the Popover in every collection since.

She designed a uniform for the Red Cross Motor Corps, brought back the knit bathing suit, and after the war brought out a full, long-skirted style (when Paris later did the same, it was dubbed the New Look).

In 1943 she took time out for a step that she had overlooked in her busy professional life. She married Texas-born Architect Irving Drought Harris, and started making a home for him and his two children by his earlier marriage (to the late Jean Ferris, granddaughter of California's Sugar King Glaus Spreckels). Designer McCardell did not try to change the tastes of her new husband. Their eleven-room Manhattan apartment is decorated with masculine hunt prints and heavy mahogany furniture.

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