Claire McCardle, the mid-century designer who is one of the founding mothers of American sportswear, did many things first.
He was the first designer to put pockets in clothes that weren’t meant to clean the house. Embracing the capsule wardrobe, using gingham for eveningwear and denim for daywear, popularizing ballet flats, putting her name on her label.
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And she was one of the first to put her wardrobe philosophy down on paper, offering what might be the best book on how to navigate a wardrobe ever written.
Titled “What Shall I Wear?” And originally published in 1956, the slim volume has now been reissued in a new edition by Abrams, with an award from Tory Burch, who has made it her goal to give McCardell’s name the same status as Saint Laurent in the popular imagination. (Birch also created a fellowship dedicated to McCardell’s work at the Maryland Center for History and Culture in Baltimore, which houses the McCardell archive.)
And while McCardle’s work also pays homage to the Metropolitan Museum’s current American fashion extravaganza, which highlights often overlooked but important American designers (mostly women and designers of color), the book as a whole evinces a more accessible concept, a contemporary kind of way.
The cover of Claire McCardell’s book “What Shall I Wear?” (Source: Tory Burch via The New York Times)
Indeed, in an age where branded glossy coffee-table tomes have proliferated, not to mention endless outfit advice from TikTok and YouTube influencers, this could prove essential reading for anyone grappling with the basic question of what to wear to go. fighting Going back to work or school – or anyone who gets up in the morning and looks shamelessly in their closet.
That’s not just because most of the advice inside is fun, though it is, or because there’s practical advice on how to shop and guided meditations on the importance of comfortable shoes and clothing to invest in. But because McCardle focuses on prioritizing the individual over the industry. Plus, she’s as adept at aphorisms as Diana Vreeland, one of fashion’s most famous purveyors of one-liners, though McCardell has a more effective application.
For example, consider a few favorite quotes: “If fashion says something that doesn’t feel right to you, ignore it.” “If you’re smart, you forget the labels and look for the fine lines.” Also my personal favorite: “Your job isn’t to track clothes so much as to track yourself.”
McCardle did not drink the champagne of fashion; He remixed it. That attitude came through in his book—and it was in his clothes. This, as much as anything, was integral in defining the difference between the American style, with its emphasis on utility and simplicity, and the more top-down, authoritarian European style. And it still resonates today.
A Claire McCardell designed 1948 pleated wool dress with ruched sleeves.
As McCardell writes, “I like to think of sportswear as not influenced by Paris—clothing that has its own influence.” In other words, the clothes that were dominant before the influencers. Although influencers themselves can learn something from the book.
The text feels surprising only when it gets caught up in the gender politics of its era. These days, “You’re in the spotlight at eight o’clock when you drive your husband on the train to marketing,” might be a little hard to swallow. Update the words “you’ll be in the spotlight at eight when you get on the train and go to work” and they become entirely relevant.
In a new afterword to the book, the Maryland Center’s vice president of collections and interpretation, Alison Tolman, claims that it was the work of wife-by-side Edith Hill, McCardell’s ghostwriter, trying to filter the designer’s apparently independent leanings through something more broadly palatable. 1950’s lens. It may be true; Other works on Cure include “The Young Executive’s Wife: You and Your Husband’s Work.” Either way, that’s not enough to detract from the charm and currency of McCardell’s book.
Besides, “What shall I wear?” This, it turns out, is part of another fashion trend, in which designers themselves are becoming vocal book boosters.
Besides Burch, those who have found inspiration on the printed page include Fendi and Dior Men’s Kim Jones, who is a compulsive vintage book collector (he has more than 20,000 volumes) and whose first Fendi collection was an ode to the Bloomsbury set. Add to the list: Joseph Altuzarra, who teamed up with Penguin Classics during the height of the pandemic and turned famous tomes like “The Odyssey” and “Moby-Dick” into the literary equivalent of a mood board filled with fabric swatches.
Also, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, who last year supported nine independent bookstores in the United States with an advertising campaign based entirely on narrative text that evokes ideas and emotions rather than clothing. and Bottega Veneta’s Matthew Blazey, who will collaborate with The Strand bookstore during this season’s New York Fashion Week, curating a reading list of his favorite books and designing a trio of exclusive tote bags.
Blazey calls The Strand “almost a motif that repeats throughout my life.”
He says New York City is always his first stop. “It always confirms to me why physical books are so important,” she said. “It is always a place of exploration with the constant joy of finding something unexpected and new.”
There is something about the materiality and authorial style of a book that finds common cause with the catwalk. When in doubt, just spend some time with McCardle, whose advice is to accessorize not just the home, but the mind — and these days it costs less than a tube of haute lipstick.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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