FASHION: The American Look

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Cold Ears. No one on Seventh Avenue is more aware of the tremendous risks in fashion than Claire McCardell, who with her company has had more ups and downs than the hemline. But no one seems less concerned about the rumors, or less worried about where whim will carry fashion next. Says she: "I've always designed things I needed myself. It just turns out that other people need them, too." At 50, Designer McCardell is still her own best model. She is 5 ft. 7 in. tall, has a trim figure (130 lbs.), honey-blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes.

To Designer McCardell, garments must have a reason. After shivering on shipboard during a transatlantic trip in a flimsy, French-designed evening wrap she turned out a wrap in tweed. She went skiing, got cold ears, did a wool-jersey hood. After lugging a trunk and five suitcases around Europe, she decided to save space by making dresses in parts, switching the pieces around for variety—a bare top and covered-up top, for example, to be worn alternately with shorts, slacks or short or long skirts. That was one of the fashion world's first important experiments with "separates," now a mainstay of American sportswear design.

Rivets & Diapers. The list of McCardell firsts stretches back 20 years. She was the first to modernize the dirndl skirt (1938) and the first to use trouser pockets and pleats in women's clothes (1938). She was the first with the widely copied "Monastic" dress, a full and shapeless forerunner of the pleated Grecian sheath and all the other unwaisted dresses. It seemed to have no form. But when it was belted on, it did great things for the female figure. It was McCardell who first started using blue-jean stitching for design in rough denims (1943), and she was the first with the "riveted look," using work-clothes grippers for fasteners and ornamentation. She introduced the "diaper" bathing suit —and in 1942 she started the craze for ballet slippers. Necessity mothered that invention: unable because of wartime shortages to get the proper shoes for her showroom models, McCardell put them all in fabric Capezio ballet slippers. The fad caught on, and she still suggests designs for many Capezio shoes.

While McCardell styles are simple, they can be identified by such things as spaghetti-like ties, big brass hooks and eyes, and a daring use of color. In her 1955 summer line, brick-red shorts ($12) are made to be worn with a long-sleeved orange blouse ($23); a boxy, pullover beach shirt ($18) is done in orange and hot pink. There is a Persian crushed-cotton dress of turquoise, moss green, red and chartreuse ($40), and a straight-from-the-shoulder swim dress of brass-colored cotton with an orange tie at the neck ($39-95).

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