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Paper Dolls. Designer McCardell comes by her deep feeling for an American way of design not only by birth but by the surroundings of her early environment. She was born (May 24, 1905) in historic Frederick, Md., where Francis Scott Key practiced law and where the Barbara Frietchie legend sprouted. Claire's father, Adrian Leroy McCardell, was an Evangelical and Reformed Church elder and Sunday-school superintendent, a 33rd-degree Mason, a Maryland state Senator, a member of the state tax commission, and president (like his father before him) of the Frederick County National Bank. Her mother, Eleanor, was a Southern belle who still lives in Frederick and keeps a picture of Robert E. Lee on the wall of her living room.
At school, Claire's grades were low, but at home, her flair for clothes showed early. She cut paper dolls out of her mother's discarded fashion magazines, traipsed around after the family seamstress. She started making her own clothes in her teens, sometimes using sketches she made of theatrical costumes on occasional family trips to Washington's National Theater.
Rosebuds & Tragedy. Claire spent two years at Frederick's Hood College, then quit, over her father's objections, to switch to Manhattan's Parsons School of Design (where she now is a part-time consultant). She studied for a year in Paris, working part time as a tracer of fashion sketches, and learned "the way clothes worked, the way they felt, where they fastened." Back in New York, she got a job painting rosebuds on lampshades for a store, did some modeling at B. Altman, became a designer in a knit-goods company at $45 a weekand was fired after eight months.
She got another $45 job as a model and sketcher for Townley Frocks, Inc., then owned by Henry H. Geiss, a harassed veteran of Seventh Avenue's fashion campaigns. A tragedy provided a break. Less than a month before the spring showing in 1931, Townley's designer drowned while swimming; it was up to Claire to turn out a collection. Says she: "I did what everybody else did in those dayscopied Paris. The collection wasn't great, but it sold." Flushed with confidence, Designer McCardell began to experiment. But often her designs were too advanced for the market. She did a dirndl skirt, for example, and no one wanted it. Geiss, now retired, sadly recalls: "Two years later they were all over the place."
On the Bias. In 1938, Claire had her first big successand speeded up the trend to casual clotheswith her Monastic dress. Until then, American women had little choice of styles between a cotton house dress and an afternoon dress. The Monastic dress gave American fashion a new flexibility that it has never lost. Loose-hanging and cut on the bias,*it did not sell at first. Then a buyer from Manhattan's Best & Co. casually asked for a New York exclusive, and ordered 50 Monastics in wool and 50 in faille. Best's ran a full-page ad on the dress, 24 hours later ordered 100 more in each fabric; within days, cheap copies were flooding the market. Says Geiss: "That dress revolutionized the whole dress industry." It also toppled Townley Frocks.