Fashion & Beauty

Designing Women: Claire McCardell and Elizabeth Hawes

By Janet Kelly

HERE AT MyLittleBird, we celebrate women every day, even though, officially speaking, the calendar only designates March (International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month) as the time to mark female achievements. Coincidentally or not,  museum exhibits in Baltimore and New York City are currently putting the spotlight on two historically significant fashion designers, Claire McCardell and Elizabeth Hawes. We decided to take a look.

At the Maryland Center for History and Culture in Baltimore, the 1,000-square-foot exhibit “Claire/McCardell” displays more than 20 designs (some never commercially produced), juxtaposed with the designer’s never-before-seen family letters, diary entries and photographs that document her life and career.

Born in 1905, McCardell grew up in Frederick, Maryland. Her first foray into fashion was making paper dolls by cutting up her mother’s issues of Vogue. As much as she loved fashion, she also loved sports and realized that her clothes got in the way of activities, like climbing a tree. The most influential person in her early life was the family seamstress—there were no ready-made clothes at the time—who taught her how to sew. As she was entering the workforce in 1928, she wrote to her parents about her interviews with men who wanted her to work like a dog for a pittance but look as if she wouldn’t break a sweat. Furthermore, as a minimalist who wanted to make clothes that embraced the beauty of women’s bodies and the way they lived, she faced an uphill battle with employers who revered French style and wanted her to copy it. Eventually, McCardell triumphed, putting her own name on a label, unheard of for a woman at the time.

Highlights of the exhibit include her first success—the bias-cut, tent-shaped “Monastic” dress, which had no form but when it was belted molded to and flattered the body. She followed that up with her “Pop-over” dress—a wraparound, “utility” dress with a very large patch pocket that a woman could, say, carry her garden tools around in.

Other ideas and solutions for daily dressing from McCardell include modern wardrobe staples like ballet flats, cat-eye sunglasses, pedal pushers and “ballet britches,” aka today’s leggings.

Although she died when she was only 52, McCardell’s legacy remains very much alive. Tory Burch notes that her spring/summer 2022 collection was “inspired by Claire McCardell’s ingenuity and her legacy of American sportswear, which revolutionized the way women dress. She discarded the rules of what women should wear, instead problem-solving for the reality of their lives. Her designs instilled a sense of freedom, encouraged self-expression and empowered women with a casual elegance that is as relevant today as it was in the late 1940s.”

Though less well known, clothing designer Elizabeth Hawes had many of the same ideas about how to dress as McCardell. Hawes understood women’s bodies and thought that all women—and men—deserved to have beautiful, functional clothes. In addition to her fashion career, she wore many other hats—as a journalist, author and political activist. Her 1938 book, Fashion is Spinach, roundly criticized the fashion industry, stating there was a difference between fashion and style. Style, she declared, “is dressing to fit your own self— it lasts.” In her writing she also urged people to think consciously about what they wore and not listen to anyone who insists that “even though last winter’s coat may be in perfect condition . . . you can’t wear it because it has a belt!”

The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) exhibit, “Elizabeth Along Her Own Lines,”the story of a rebel spirit and her way-ahead-of-her-time thinking about fashion. Divided into four parts, the first section, “Clothes With a Purpose” focuses on her political activism, including segments from her 1948 book, Hurry Up, Please, It’s Time, which chronicled discrimination against female union organizers. In “Men Might Like Skirts,” the exhibit displays brightly colored men’s clothes, as well as unisex clothing. Hawes wanted her clients to question the idea of “acceptable dress,” encouraging them to develop a style based on their own personality. The “Who the Hell Are You” section highlights Hawes’s love of color and modern lines, while the final section “I Leave You Here” focuses on her legacy and vision for the future.

“Claire/McCardell” runs through November, 2023, at the museum at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, 610 Park Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland. The museum is open 10am–5pm Wednesday–Saturday and 12-5pm Sunday. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors. 

“Elizabeth Along Her Own Lines” closes March 26 at The Museum at FIT, 227 W 27th St, New York, NY. It’s open 12-8pm Wednesday through Friday and 10am-5pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. 







3 thoughts on “Designing Women: Claire McCardell and Elizabeth Hawes

  1. Nancy G says:

    Pioneers!! Eventually, we had Donna Karan, and now a whole slew of wonderful female designers.

  2. barbara kreger says:

    If you visit the FIT museum, the Elizabeth Hawes is small, in the back. Be sure to see a fabulous (and funny) radio interview of Ms.Hawes by Rudy Vallee.
    FIT has two other exhibits: “Designing Women” and “50 Years of Hip Hop Style.”

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      thanks! good thing to note.

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