Claire McCardell collection
The materials in the Claire McCardell collection span the years from 1923 –1995. The materials consist of letters; newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and pictures of clothing; date books; passports; business correspondence; notes and manuscript drafts; and books published by and about Claire.
- McCardell, Claire, 1905-1958 (Person)
Conditions Governing Access
The collection is open for research use.
Conditions Governing Use
The reproduction of materials in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine and satisfy copyright clearances or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections. For more information visit the MCHC’s Rights and Permissions page.
Biographical / Historical
Claire McCardell, 1905 – 1958
Claire McCardell was born on May 24, 1905 to Adrian and Eleanore McCardell of Frederick, Maryland. Adrian McCardell was a state senator and president of the Frederick County National Bank. As a young child, Claire showed strong interest in clothing design and sewing, absorbing knowledge from the family seamstress and creating paper dolls for her own amusement. Claire graduated from Frederick High School in 1923 and made her intentions to study fashion design in New York clear to her family, but they felt she was too young at age 16 to begin such an adventure. Claire instead attended Hood College in Frederick from 1923 – 1925, and then enrolled in Parsons School of Design in New York City. She spent a year studying in Paris, learning about the work of the great design houses and purchasing secondhand designer clothing to take apart and study its construction. Claire received the first of what would be many mentions in the Frederick News in 1927 after she witnessed Charles Lindbergh’s landing in Paris at the end of his historic transatlantic flight.
After graduating from Parsons, Claire struggled to find employment in New York’s fashion industry and worked a series of short-term jobs. Her luck changed when she was hired to work as an assistant to designer Robert Turk in 1929. When Turk’s venture failed, he and Claire joined Townley Frocks, a successful design house. Turk died unexpectedly in 1932, and Claire took over his position at the company and finished designing Turk’s collection. The collection was a modest success, and Claire stayed with Townley for seven years. She came to the attention of the fashion world with her “Monastic” dress design in 1938. Claire also briefly worked for fashion house Hattie Carnegie when Townley closed for a short time in 1939, but her simple, relaxed style was not a good match with Carnegie. She rejoined Townley in 1940, and began to produce the designs that made her one of America’s top designers.
Claire’s designs became known as the ultimate expression of the new, uniquely American fashion style that distinguished itself from Paris. Her notable pieces included the “Popover,” a simple, inexpensive wrap dress that was designed for women to wear from the kitchen to the dining room. An avid sportswoman, she designed many casual and sportswear pieces for the busy, modern American woman. These pieces included playsuits and the “diaper” bathing suit. Even her more formal suits and evening wear were true to her fashion ideals of comfort, ease and casual elegance.
Claire married Irving Drought Harris, an architect from Texas, in 1943. They spent their time in New York City and at their farmhouse in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Claire died March 22, 1958 after a battle with cancer, still in the prime of her designing career.
3.5 Linear Feet (7 boxes and 2 oversize folders)
Language of Materials
Series I: Correspondence; 1926 –1995 (Boxes 1-2)
This series contains assorted letters, notes, and writings from different stages of Claire McCardell’s life and from the years following her death.
Subseries 1: Personal Correspondence, 1926 – 1940 (Box 1)
This subseries includes letters McCardell wrote to her parents when she lived in New York and Paris, both as a student and later as a designer. Subjects discussed include life in Paris and New York, family affairs, career aspirations, and college life. Claire describes seeing Charles Lindbergh land in Paris, meeting Ernest Hemingway on a ship, and the successes and challenges of her fashion career.
Subseries 2: Professional Correspondence, 1936 – 1995 (Box 1)
This subseries contains professional correspondence directed both to Claire herself and to her family members in the years following her death in 1958. Items include fan mail addressed to Claire and to her mother; Claire’s miscellaneous correspondence from fashion editors, media outlets, and others; and a letter addressed to Adolph Klein offering condolences on Claire’s death. Correspondence with the McCardell family includes invitations to events, appraisal of acknowledgement of clothing lent for exhibitions, and receipts for clothing lent. Of note are the correspondence files relating to two of Claire’s products: her “SunSpecs” sunglasses and her book “What Shall I Wear?” These files contain thank-you letters from a number of noted fashion editors, writers, and even celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers for complimentary sunglasses or books.
Subseries 3: Miscellaneous Notes and Writings, 1944 – 1950s (Box 2)
This subseries contains an assortment of notes, draft statements and speeches, and career timelines created by Claire or her publicists.
Series II: Articles 1935 –1995 (Boxes 2, 3, 5, 6 and oversize folder)
This series contains newspaper and magazine clippings and complete magazines.
Subseries 1: Magazines 1940s – 1990s (Boxes 5 and 6)
This subseries consists of complete magazines containing articles that feature McCardell. Highlights include a May 2, 1955 edition of Time with McCardell featured on the cover, and a November 1956 edition of McCall’s that includes a redacted version of “What Shall I Wear?”
Subseries 2: Other Articles 1930 – 1995 (Boxes 2, 3, and oversize folder)
This subseries contains newspaper and magazine clippings relating to McCardell’s life and career. Some have been gathered by a news clipping service, while others appear to have been collected by the McCardell family.
Series III: Publicity 1941 –1995 (Boxes 3, 5, and oversize folder)
This series includes ephemera and published publicity for McCardell and her designs. Brief mentions and published photographs in newspapers and magazines are categorized by type of clothing or product. Other types of publicity include ephemera; endorsements featuring McCardell; and television show scripts.
Subseries 1: Clothing by Type, 1941 – 1985 (Boxes 3, 5, and oversize folder)
This subseries includes published drawings or photos of McCardell designs and garments, most often from newspapers and fashion or women’s magazines.
Subseries 2: Other Publicity, 1943 - 1995 (Boxes 4, 5 and oversize folder)
This subseries includes ephemera from exhibits, retrospectives, and awards ceremonies and television show scripts from episodes featuring McCardell. Newspaper and magazine advertisements are also included, featuring McCardell endorsing everything from bread to fabric to cars and often marketing her own designs alongside the featured product.
Series IV: Personal 1923 –1977 (Box 4)
This series contains personal items found in the collection, including mementos from Paris such as postcards and a ship menu, a detailed horoscope prepared for McCardell in 1934, and a family history written by Roy McCardell, a cousin. The series also includes McCardell’s two passports from 1926-1936 and date books from 1944-1957.
Series V: Publications 1955 –1957 (Boxes 4-5)
This series includes notes about and drafts of materials published by McCardell, as well as some of the published materials.
Subseries 1: What Shall I Wear? materials, 1955 – 1956 (Box 4)
This subseries contains materials relating to the book “What Shall I Wear?” published in 1955. These include notes and draft passages of the text, a complete draft manuscript, and a book jacket from the published work.
Subseries 2: Other Publications, 1951 - 1957 (Boxes 4-5)
This subseries contains items relating to other publications. One is a group of newspaper and magazine clippings advertising patterns of McCardell designs available for purchase. The other is a paper doll book with two figures and clothing for each.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Gift of Robert and Adrian McCardell in 1998 and 1999.
Additional materials donated by Robert and Adrian McCardell were accessioned in 2018. See Series VI: Accession 2018-016-LIB
Scope and Contents
The papers in the Claire McCardell collection span the years from 1923 –1995. The materials consist of letters; newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and pictures of clothing; date books; passports; business correspondence; notes and manuscript drafts; and books published by and about Claire. The collection has been arranged in five series by types of material.
The bulk of the material consists of newspaper and magazine clippings of articles, fashion spreads, and advertisements featuring Claire or her designs. These mainly cover the period from 1940 – 1958; however, there are also obituaries, memorials, and retrospective articles spanning the dates of 1958 – 1995. The majority of the correspondence consists of letters Claire wrote to her parents during her studies at Parsons and in Paris, and in the subsequent years when she lived and worked in New York. Correspondence also includes Claire’s business correspondence and fan mail (1936 – 1958), and her family’s correspondence relating to her affairs and legacy after her death (1958 – 1995). The collection includes a sizeable amount of professional ephemera from various exhibits, retrospectives, and awards, and personal ephemera including mementos from her time in Paris. The collection’s publication materials include a Claire McCardell paper doll set, notes and drafts of Claire’s 1956 book “What Shall I Wear?” and numerous pattern publications.
When acquired, the collection consisted of a number of notebooks of material organized by topic by the McCardell family, as well as a large amount of material accumulated over time and not filed in an order significant to the collector. As a result, the collection has been arranged by subject matter, and all notebook materials are noted as such on file folders and have retained their original order. Among those who are known to have contributed papers to this collection are Claire McCardell, her parents Adrian and Eleanore McCardell, her brothers Adrian and Robert McCardell, her colleague Adolph Klein, and book authors and exhibit curators Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf. Some preservation copying has been done for deteriorating newspaper and magazine items, carbon copies, and letters with mold damage. Additionally, notes on non-archival paper attached by the McCardell family to documents have been photocopied and filed together with the documents.
The Claire McCardell Collection offers materials of interest to researchers of women’s history, fashion design, American fashion of the 1930s-1950s, and notable women of Maryland.
- McCardell, Claire, 1905-1958 (Person)
- Guide to the Claire McCardell collection
- Under Revision
- Jennifer Kinniff
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- 2020-03-27: Manually entered into ArchivesSpace by Mallory Herberger.
- 2022-06-06: Accretion processed by Sandra Glascock.
Part of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library Repository
H. Furlong Baldwin Library
Maryland Center for History and Culture
610 Park Avenue
Baltimore MD 21201 United States