Claire was born in Maryland in 1905. She studied fashion and costume design at Parsons School of the Arts in New York as well as at the Paris branch of the school. After graduation, she worked odd jobs sketching, painting, sewing and modelling. She began working as an assistant to designer Robert Turk in 1930. His business disbanded in 1932 and they both went to work for Townley Frocks Inc. Turk tragically drowned in 1931, which left Claire at the helm of the collection that spring. She said “I did what everybody else did in those days – copied Paris. The collection wasn’t great, but it sold.”
She launched the tent-like ‘Monastic Dress’ in 1938 and her career really took off after it was picked up by Manhattan’s Best & Co. Department store. It was sold for $29.95 and became widely copied. The cost and futility of fighting knock-offs drove Townley Frocks out of business.
She worked briefly with Hattie Carnegie in 1939 but the upscale company felt that Claire’s designs were ultimately too simple for their customers. However, she made a good friend while there in Harper’s editor Diana Vreeland, who became a champion of her work.
Townley reopened in 1940 under new management. McCardell returned to work for them with her name on the label- one of the first American designers to achieve this. She quickly ushered in what became known as the ‘American Look’, which stressed the need for practicality in women’s fashion. She stated that “I do not like glitter. I like comfort in the rain, in the sun, comfort for active sports, comfort for sitting still and looking pretty. Clothes should be useful.”
“Most of my ideas come from trying to solve my own problems—problems just like yours”.
In 1941, she created mix and match separates that created nine outfits out of five pieces to reduce the number of items one needed to travel with. This idea became a mainstay of American sportswear.
She was unable to obtain appropriate leather shoes for her models in 1942 due to rationing during wartime. As a result, she commissioned Salvatore Capezio's company to make ballet flats out of rubber soles in fabrics matching her designs. They were an instant hit and it sparked a footwear trend that remains popular to this day.
In response to a Harper’s Bazaar challenge in 1942, Claire designed the cotton ‘popover’ wrap dress with matching potholder that fit into the dress pocket. It allowed women to do their housework and still look smart enough for entertaining. They sold for $6.95 and 75,000 were sold in the first season alone. A version was included in every subsequent collection.
One of the reasons she was so successful was her ability to work with a variety of materials under the restrictions set during WWII, such as denim and calico. Many designers struggled with the loss of French guidance while Claire had purposefully cut out influence from France in her work. When the government announced a surplus of weather balloon cottons in 1944, McCardell quickly bought them up, designing clothes that American women wore with pride.
Some of her design innovations, or ‘McCardellism’s’ included metal closures, double rows of top stitching and spaghetti string ties. She also used menswear touches like pleat-front pants and pockets.
After the war, she volunteered at Parsons and joined an advisory panel at Time magazine to create a magazine that later became Sports Illustrated.
She became a partner in the Townley company in 1952.
In April 1953, the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills launched a retrospective exhibition of twenty years of McCardell's garments. The exhibit included the "Monastic Dress", the "Diaper Bathing Suit", Capezio ballet flats, and work-wear-inspired pieces with rivets. In his introduction to the exhibit, retailer Stanley Marcus wrote, "...she is one of the truly creative designers this country has produced... She is to America what Vionnet was to France."
She graced the cover of Time in 1955.
Throughout her career, she received the Mademoiselle Merit award, the Coty award, the first American Sportswear designer award, the Neiman Marcus award and the Womens’ National Press Club Woman of the Year award (presented by president Truman).
In 1956, she published a book: ‘What Shall I Wear? The What, Where, When and How Much of Fashion.’
Unfortunately her great life was cut short by a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1957. She produced her final collection from her hospital bed with the help of a friend. She checked herself out of hospital to introduce the collection at her runway show at the crowded Pierre Hotel in New York, where she received a standing ovation.
She passed away in March 1958 at the height of her success aged 52. Her family closed her label upon her death.
In 1981, Lord & Taylor re-issued the "Popover Dress" as part of a McCardell retrospective at their Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan.
In 1990, Life named McCardell one of the 100 most important Americans of the twentieth century.
In 1998, forty years after her death, three separate retrospectives of Claire McCardell's work were staged at the Met, the F.I.T., and the Maryland Historical Society.
A 7.5 foot bronze Claire McCardell statue was erected in Maryland in 2021.
She is remembered as the originator of American fashion.