I have very little to impart about shopping in New York, despite the frequent number of times I'm there. I refuse to deviate from my well rehearsed routine of munching on dumplings from Vanessa's, spending at least an hour at Opening Ceremony, rifling through racks of Tokio 7 and queueing up for a lonesome bowl of ramen at Ippudo. There are some places that are blindingly obvious addresses to New Yorker that I've yet to frequent. One of them is New York Vintage, a store, which W cites as being one of New York's vintage best and is comparable to say a Rellik or Virginia's in London; i.e. so well-established that you could well pass it by. Remember that "bird" perched on top of Carrie Bradshaw's head as she crumpled and quivered in her Vivienne Westwood wedding dress in the divisive film spin off (More4 – STOP with the SATC film repeats – at least have the decency to repeat the TV series)? That was sourced from New York Vintage.
Upon my first visit there over the weekend, the gentleman working there was kind enough to let me rifle through rails quite freely, letting me into the secret back area as well as undoing tassels and "Do Not Touch" ropes. Organised by decade, New York Vintage is a fine emporium with excellent examples of pretty much everything going back to late Victorian. I was particularly seduced by their selection of Edwardian lawn dresses – all cream lace, broderie anglaise and yellowed embroidery. What got me really excited though was finding a piece by Claire McCardell. Depending on just how enthusiastic you are about American fashion design history, you're either rabidly hyperventilating or the name just doesn't ring a bell. I came across an enduring image of McCardell's jersey bubble shorts and strapless bikini a few years ago which led me to read this 1955 Time magazine profile about her work and the development of the "American" look. Therefore when I read the Claire McCardell label on this pleated sundress c. early 1950s, I had to pump my fists silently.
McCardell could conceivably be called the first American designer to create a wholly and "American look". Valerie Steele, chief curator of F.I.T. Museum (I finally got to meet this personal heroine of mine last season at a Lanvin show) says "We look at her as the founder of democratic American fashion," shortly after the museum staged a show entitled "Claire McCardell and the American Look" back in 1998. McCardell's contribution can't be understated given that she laid the foundations for designers like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan to later solidify the cornerstones of American sportswear.
McCardell singularly wanted to free the American woman, presenting solutions for life as she knew it. Her love of the outdoors gave way to wool jersey hoods when she went skiing and wraps made out of tweed. The busy housewives post WWII were given popover dresses that came with matching oven mitts. She designed, not for herself, but for a company calledTownley Frocks (she also briefly worked for Hattie Carnegie) from 1931 up until 1958, in a price bracket that when compared to the likes of Dior or Charles James was comparatively affordable – a cotton sundress was $40 in 1955. Whilst "casual" style underlined McCardell's designs, under our contemporary gaze, we can see the precise construction (see the super sharp pleats on the dress I bought, one of McCardell's signatures) and decorative detailing that is a far cry from our "casual" clothes. She tried to steer clear of the copycat syndrome that pervaded American fashion at the time, where designers would look to Paris for ideas, and instead established her own language of McCardell-isms. That said, she was a life long admirer of Vionnet but even then, the bias cut of those lavish evening gowns was transplanted to day dresses in jersey, denim and calico.
Her main contributions include the 1938 "Monastic" dress, a much copied easy-to-wear dress shape which fell free into a trapeze from the shoulders but could be belted in for a more fitted silhouette, the introduction of the "diaper" bathing suit as well as staring a trend for fabric Capezio ballet slippers as she rejected heels. Other McCardell-isms such as trouser pockets, spaghetti ties and workwear fastenings seem like insignificant details today, but were womenswear firsts at the time. Just the mere idea of separates was something that McCardell played with as she created different tops to go with slacks, skirts or shorts. Her ideas solved practical problems that we don't have to deal with today. McCardell commented in her self-penned book What shall I wear? (getting republished in the UK next month) ''Most of my ideas seem startlingly self-evident. I wonder why I didn't think of them before.'' Her fame didn't endure beyond the fifties but her innovations of modern day casual sportswear are probably in most of our wardrobes.
Images sourced from House of White Bridal, Sweet Jane Vintage (consisting of scans from Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism by Kohle Yohannan), The Red List, The Vintage Traveler, Met Museum Collections, FIDM Museum, Fashion Historia