PRINT March 1995


Claire McCardell

FROM TIME TO TIME, the extraordinarily well-dressed young man and his companion attended films together, less for entertainment than as corroboration or refusal of their respective internal realities or turns of mind. At the recent retrospective of Andy Warhol’s films at New York’s Film Forum, the two men sat through films that depicted (among other things) various people in various states of undress. What clothes the “actors” wore said as much about their epoch as did the words they used—gender was being bent in a confused way, particularly in Chelsea Girls, Warhol’s messy tour de force. In it, nearly everyone wears hip-huggers and button-down Oxfords or T-shirts. Femaleness is not defined through clothes; what defines femaleness in Chelsea Girls is the inability of the women to relax.

One afternoon, the extraordinarily well-dressed young man said to his companion (who privately did not consider himself so): having just returned from the Claire McCardell exhibition at Parsons School of Design, I am preoccupied with the idea of relaxation as it applies to women in general and American women in particular. Among postwar American designers, Claire McCardell is unique in the thoughts with which she infused fashion: how should a clothes designer go about changing the image of the American woman, given that woman’s (then) postwar prosperity and her need to freeze out the memory of the war? McCardell’s clothes, which were sometimes constructed in wool jersey and had a long line, or were sometimes constructed in cotton plaid and had a full skirt, promoted the idea of play, a letting go of the responsibility inherent in being a war wife, in being deprived. Women were free to move in McCardell’s clothes; McCardell’s women were kept.

But as what? inquired the extraordinarily well-dressed young man’s companion, who had seen the McCardell exhibition too and had a few thoughts of his own. He said: We have an image of the ’50s housewife—cheerful but mute. That image was in fact corroborated by McCardell’s designs, which disappeared women. Her designs are not about freedom but about low maintenance. They propagate a fake idea: leisure. And it is strange that the idea of the mute woman should still be revered. The Parsons exhibition showed its reverence for McCardell’s mute woman by lighting the clothes dramatically, isolating them from one another.

McCardell’s clothes encouraged the concepts of maintenance and of uniforms. She wanted to dress a group of American women for a war against the concept of relaxation. For there was so much to do in the ’50s—like barbecue in the backyard after the bomb shelter had finally been demolished. McCardell’s purported interest in the idea of leisure time for women was a trope she used to sell her idea of American style. Subtextually, her aim was to create a style that would enhance and attractively package a ’50s woman’s neuroses. There is a nervousness in many sartorial objects. Women don’t have fun. Women are more apt to think about how or why they can’t enjoy themselves than actually enjoy themselves. Claire McCardell dressed the mothers of the women seen in Chelsea Girls, women who still had difficulty relaxing beneath their Oxfords.

The extraordinarily well-dressed young man nodded. He said: fashion never represents what a woman looks like. Fashion is about the anxiety that designers and the culture at large have about women, and what they assume women should look like. The anxiety McCardell faced was the same anxiety her own efforts perpetuated: what did it mean to create a utilitarian “antifashion” that was less about appearance than about purpose? Nearly 30 years after McCardell’s career was over, her principles were adopted by other designers who reduced them to a low-budget concept, also typically American: the leisure suit.

Hilton Als is a writer who lives in New York.