Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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An Ode to Claire McCardell in the object-based analysis of a Red Cotton Dress

By Jenn Bilczuk

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Claire McCardell for Townley red cotton dress c.1940-1949 FRC 2014.07.477

In the 1940’s, Paris was under occupation and designers elsewhere were cut off from their Parisian inspirations. To prevent the demise of the industry, American designers were thrust into a position of fashion authority that had been previously denied to them (Buckland). Key influencers, like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, fueled by economic nationalism promoted homegrown talent in hopes of stimulating American investment in American designers (Buckland). The increased publicity and the changing social landscape of the forties elevated Claire McCardell’s simple yet stylish design into fashion discourse. She emerged as: “refreshing unFrench” (Yohannan).

McCardell designed well cut garments that transitioned into well made mass-produced pieces. Trained in haute couture techniques, McCardell repelled from the frivolity of couture garments – but not without studying every Parisian design she could get her hands on, giving her an impeccable understanding of clothing construction (Robinson, 104). McCardell took inspiration from the needs of the American women that she identified with. During the war, women were interacting with the world in new ways and McCardell was acutely aware of the evolution of the mid-century woman – she aimed to create clothing that was “at once appropriate for the office, cocktail hour and leisure” (Yohannan).

Claire McCardell’s designs were radical in the context of the forties, since they did not feature shoulder pads, back zippers, boning, and the heavily constructed looks of the times (Yohannan). Instead McCardell garments embodied the fundamentals of sportswear as it is known today: offering functionality, quality and practicality, characteristics so entrenched in contemporary fashions that they remain largely “under appreciated and understudied” (Robinson, 100). McCardell created pieces that were fashionable  and durable. Some of her signature elements were derived from the functional characteristics of American working class clothing. For example, her use of cotton, reinforced by classic double stitching from denim work eventually became a design staple (245, Kirkland). Her production of stylish clothing in traditionally non-fashionable fabrics was ground breaking. She preferred wools, jerseys and cottons because of their reasonable price and availability (Kirkland, 252); “effectively ennobling everyday materials by way of thoughtful design and deftly executed construction” (Yohannan).

These design signatures came to be known as “McCardellisms”, distinctive in identifying a garment as her design (Robinson, 110). She made use of techniques from couture production, but only “those that worked within the constraints of mass production and American fashion” (Robinson, 106). Her distinctive use of the bias cut was influenced by the work of Madeleine Vionnet, which she was exposed to during her training years in Paris (Robinson, 105). The McCardellisms were features that integrated functionality into women’s every day wear. She insisted on deep side pockets in every garment, including her evening gowns, as pockets offered “a place to put one’s hands so as not to feel ill at ease or vulnerable’” (Yohannan and Nolf, quoted by Stanfill). As she instructed her models to display her designs with their shoulders leaning back, hips thrust forward, and hands in their pockets, she is credited with creating the modern slouched stance used on the catwalk today (Robinson, 108).

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Front view Claire McCardell for Townley red cotton dress 1940-1949 FRC2014.07.477

The Ryerson Research Fashion Collection has a garment by Claire McCardell : a red cotton below-knee length dress in a white and black trefoil motif, with a shawl collar and short sleeves (FRC2014.07.477). The dress was dated by the donor to the  1940s. In 1940, McCardell began her second chapter with Townley Frocks as the head designer. The label in the dress reads “Claire McCardell Clothes: By Townley”. During her first period designing with the company in the thirties, McCardell’s work was strictly under the Townley label – the company fearing that naming the designer would make McCardell difficult to work with (Kirland. 239). The label change in the forties however only strengthened the relationship between McCardell and Townley, which lasted until her death in 1958.

The dress itself is in remarkable condition – reflecting the designer’s belief that “good fashion somehow earns the right to survive” (Kirkland, 307). Any displays of aging are only visible upon close inspection. Under the collar and inside the pockets, the original darker red colour contrasts the faded red of the exposed fabric, a combination of age and wear. The latter is further displayed in the discolouration visible directly in the underarms and the hem of the skirt which is slightly tattered; seams are starting to separate, the stitches loosening from one another. There are multiple alterations – re-stitching done in red, and eventually in contrasting threads of black and white. The signs of wear and the overall condition signify a beloved dress, one that was worn often but taken care of, supported by the integrity of its production.

The red cotton dress is a modified princess cut, the seams detailed in white contrasting thread – a McCardellism of reimagining classic patterns in modern fashion. The princess cut features continuous vertical panels, shaped to the body through the torso with no waistline seam – rather than a typical bodice and skirt. Alternatively, the red dress has two vertical bust darts that begin near the shoulders and meet the top of the large side pockets, detailed again in white thread; eventually merging into the side seam at the bottom of the pockets. There is a rather large zipper on the left side that was originally red, but has chipped away to reveal silver from use – it’s placement essential to a woman’s ability to dress herself, another McCardellism (Robinson, 125). The center seam mimics the double stitching techniques borrowed from denim work. The dress is cut on a bias with pink tape used selectively along the inner hem, both shoulders, and on the inner right side seam: a signature detail, giving the garment greater movement and elegantly draping on the body.

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Back view of Claire McCardell red cotton dress 1940-1949 FRC2014.07.477 

In 1947, after the war had ended, Dior released the New Look – characterized by its emphasized bust, longer hemline, indented waist and accentuated hips (Charleston). The look contradicted militaristic aesthetics of the period that broadened women’s shoulders and narrowed their hips (McDowell, 70). Comparatively, McCardell’s red cotton dress in the FRC reflects a similar silhouette, leading me to believe that the dress could have been produced in the later years of the 1940s – specifically between the years of 1946-1949. Despite the presence of the aforesaid McCardellisms; the piece conspicuously lacks other specific design details of her pieces in the early forties, such as adjustable waistlines, wraps and spaghetti ties, large belts, and gilt hooks and eyes. While McCardell rarely used zippers after the war, when she did they were a highly visible design detail (Robinson, 125); in this case the red cotton dress features a zipper on the left side, drawing attention with contrasting white thread.

Sally Kirkland, a Vogue fashion editor, recalled a conversation in spring 1946 with McCardell when the designer shared her prediction that the “following spring she thought women were going to want very full and much longer skirts” (271) in response to the silhouettes of the forties and the restrictions enforced during the war. The next spring, McCardell released a collection of dresses with full circle skirts and dropped hemlines – working out “new proportions so that the unaccustomed length and fullness was set off by a snug bias bodice and tiny waist” (Kirkland, 271). The red dress embodies these very features: a narrow fit through the bust, drawing in at the waist, and opening towards the hips; which are further accentuated by the large, rounded pockets on both the left and right side. The back of the dress is embellished with a piercing, almost a gore, and without risking the integrity of waistline, offers additional volume while making the round skirt much fuller. It is also significantly longer than her dresses from earlier in the decade; measuring at 31 inches from the front waist to the hem, and hangs slightly longer at the back measuring 34 inches from waist to hem. The skirt hangs around 10-12 inches longer than previous designs (Kirkland, 271). The dress would fall well below the knee on a wearer between 5’5″ – 5’7″.

All things considered, I believe that McCardell’s 1946 prediction that “fashion would gravitate towards longer lengths, yards of fabric, and rounded narrow shoulders”, manifested itself in the red cotton dress of the FRC, dating it more accurately to the years 1946-1949 (Robinson, 135). While both Dior and McCardell envisioned the emergence of the silhouette, Dior’s dramatic interpretation overshadowed Claire’s much simpler designs. In this one red cotton dress, I see evidence of the difference between the old world of French fashion versus the new American look; the male versus the female designer;  and glamour versus practicality. Her vision developed into a more youthful feminine silhouette “often made more so with a shawl collar”, and produced in practical fabrics as displayed in the red cotton dress (Kirkland, 71); a mainstay in the “wardrobe of college girls, working women and housewives alike” (Yohannan). The red cotton dress of the FRC perfectly embodies Claire McCardell’s approach to dressing the American woman; it harmoniously incorporates function into fashion, moving with the wearer through the day in effortless style.

References

Buckland, Sandra Stansbery. “Promoting American Designers, 1940–44: Building Our Own House.” Twentieth-Century American Fashion. Ed. Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham. Oxford: Berg, 2008. N.p. Dress, Body, Culture. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Claire McCardell Red Cotton Dress. American. 1940-1949. Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, Toronto. Ryerson University. Web.

Charleston, Beth Duncuff. “Christian Dior (1905–1957).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. N.p Web 29 Feb. 2017

Kirkland, Sally. “McCardell.” American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigére. Ed. Sarah Tomerlin Lee. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1975. 209-316. Print.

McCardell, Claire. What Shall I Wear?: What, Where, When, and How Much of Fashion. N.p.: Simon and Schuster, 1956. Print.

McDowell, Colin. Forties Fashion and the New Look. N.p.: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Mida, Ingrid. Personal Interview. 1 March 2017

Robinson, Rebecca J. “American Sportswear: A Study of the Origins and Women Designers from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.” Thesis. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, n.d. 2003. Web. 7 Mar. 2017

Stanfill, Sonnet. “Curating the Fashion City: New York Fashion at the V&A.” Fashion’s World Cities. Ed. Christopher Breward and David Gilbert. Oxford: Berg, 2006. N.p. Cultures of Consumption Series. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 28 Feb. 2017

Yohannan, Kohle. “McCardell, Claire.” The Berg Companion to Fashion. Ed. Valerie Steele. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. N.p Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Jenn Bilczuk is a first-year MA Fashion student at Ryerson University. This post was written for an object-based research assignment in MA Theory II and has been edited for the FRC blog by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida. 


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Drawing as a Research Tool: Observing The Sleeping Beauty Bluebird Costume

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Front view of the Bluebird costume. (FRC 2014.08.015A) Drawing by Teresa Adamo 2017.

Observing an historical artifact can be overwhelming at first, especially when presented with a garment that has a large amount of surface details and materials.  Creating observational drawings can be an excellent method for object-based research. As stated in The Dress Detective, “sketching is a method of helping the mind to slow down and, in the process of doing so, take notice of small details” (Note 1).  With this in mind, I attempted to put the technique to use when studying the men’s Bluebird costume from the National Ballet of Canada.

Before diving into the artifact itself, it is important to discuss preparation for drawing in a research setting.  I found it useful to have a few goals in mind before I began drawing.  The following three goals are general prompts that I used to guide my experience, but each individual researcher may have different goals in mind specific to the artifact they are studying.  

  1. The main goal of the observation stage according to Mida and Kim is to ensure that “factual evidence related to the object is retained and recorded” (Note 2). Drawing will help you capture details that could otherwise be missed.  
  2. You are creating a memory aid to help you remember and describe specific elements of the artifact.  Since fashion is a visual medium, visual aids are important to include in any research project.
  3. Drawing should be an engaging experience to help you during the reflection and interpretation stages of your research.  Your sensory and personal reactions will be heightened if you spend time dedicated to the careful observation of the object.  

The use of different materials will affect the outcome of the drawing.  Each medium has its benefits and drawbacks.  Ink creates harsh outlines and it may be more difficult to show three dimensional form, but it is the most useful for capturing small details.  It is the ideal medium when clarity is desirable, and it scans and photographs well.  Pencil is better for shading to show form and texture, but it can be messier and may smudge on the paper.  It can also be more difficult to photograph and scan since graphite becomes shiny as it is layered.  For this example I used acid-free India ink pens, but I would advise using whatever you feel most comfortable drawing with.  You do not necessarily need to purchase expensive equipment, especially if you are just drawing for your own notes.  As Mida and Kim state, “the goal is not to create a work of art, but simply to aid the process of observation.  The sketch might end up being a crude line drawing, but this is a valuable method of recording key information and embracing the Slow Approach to Seeing” (Note 3).

Case Study: Bluebird costume from the National Ballet of Canada

 

Left: Inside view showing hand stitching and finishing.  Right: Back view focusing on placement of applique trim. (FRC 2014.08.015A) Drawings by Teresa Adamo 2017

The Sleeping Beauty has been part of the classical ballet cannon ever since it premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1890 (Note 4).  Marius Petipa created the choreography, and commissioned Pyotr Ilyich-Tchaikovsky to compose an original score for the ballet.  Sleeping Beauty has been part of the National Ballet’s repertoire since its premier in the company on November 26th, 1953 (Note 5).  The performance has gone through several revisions throughout the NBC’s history, but this particular Bluebird costume was designed for the 1972 version, which first premiered September 1st with choreography by Rudolf Nureyev, after Marius Petipa (Note 6).  While the previous performances featured costumes by Kay Ambrose, the designer Nicholas Georgiadis was responsible for the set and costume design of the 1972 production.  This production was a resounding success and boosted the NBC to international fame.  The opening performance at the new Four Seasons Center In 2006 was The Sleeping Beauty, for which the original sets and costumes by Georgiadis were restored (Note 7).

This design features a streamlined silhouette which lies close to the body.  It has fitted set in sleeves and princess seams down the front and back, creating a symmetrical 8-paneled design.  The shell fabric is mauve jacquard with metallic rose gold filaments that create an organic wave pattern. The shell fabric is pilling, most notably on the sleeve and side panels where the fabric was under stress and friction.  The garment opens at center front with hook and bar tape, as well as 6 sew-on snaps.  There is an additional row of single hook and bars, each individually sewn on the front so that the garment has a small amount of adjustability depending on which dancer is wearing it.  Since the sleeves are fitted and only have a 7 ¾” wrist opening, there is a 5” slit which also features hook and bar closures.

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Detail of sleeve showing slit, trim and internal construction. (FRC 2014.08.015A) Drawing by Teresa Adamo 2017.

One of the most striking features of this artifact is its three distinct decorative elements: applique, silver trim, and ribbon loops.  Applique arabesques cover the front and back of the shirt.  They are made of yellow fabric with gold metallic thread, and are covered with black hexagonal net, the layers being held together by a dense black zig-zag stitch around the edge.  Some of the black net has ripped from the wear and tear of the costume over time, exposing the yellow fabric.  There is also silver trim in two styles, one with a foliage pattern and another with a fleur de lis pattern.  The thin trim is  ¾” wide.  The large trim is 1 ⅝” at its widest point.  The ribbons are applied as loops to the shoulders, wrists, and bottom hem in a pattern alternating the three colours.  

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Detail of small “fleur de lis” and large “foliage” silver trim. (FRC 2014.08.015A) Drawing by Teresa Adamo 2017.

Switching focus to the inside of the garment, I observed that the visible seams have been finished with a three-thread serger, and the widths of the seam allowances range from 1” at center front to ¼” at the top of the center back.  The center front seam allowance on either side has a ¾” slash at the approximate waist, possible to allow the dancer more movement.  The front panels were also advantageously cut so that the center front is along the fabric selvedge so that it does not have to be finished and saves yardage.  The body has been sewn to a layer of fairly thick basket weave beige canvas, while the sleeves are lined with a lighter plain weave cotton in a similar color.  The lower panel has metallic blue lining which clean finishes the hem, and would look more aesthetically pleasing than the canvas if it were to show during a performance.    

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Detail of center front seam allowance showing slash and blanket stitch. (FRC 2014.08.015A) Drawing by Teresa Adamo 2017.

After I finished recording all of my observations in writing and drawing, I looked back at the goals of the exercise to judge whether or not they were accomplished.  I do feel that I captured more of the small details that I would not have seen from simply writing my observations.  For example, at first I did not know how to represent the silver trim, so in order to make detail drawings I had to closely look to see that they were made of metallic filaments very tightly wrapped together.  From there, I could find a way to draw them accurately.  I did find that while describing the garment, it was useful to have the memory aid with me to prompt descriptions, especially of the interior of the garment which could easily be overlooked because of the amount of surface detail on this costume.  Although this post will not cover the reflection and interpretation stages of researching an object-based design, it definitely aided in my understanding of the garment’s construction.  

Creating observational drawings can be a great start to object-based research.  Drawing gives you a comprehensive and in depth understanding of the physical properties of the artifact.  It also makes research more memorable and engaging.  Fashion is a visual and tactile industry, so fashion research benefits from an observational method which takes advantage of the same characteristics.

Notes

Note 1: For more information on object-based research and the Slow Approach to Seeing, refer to Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim, The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 36.

Note 2: Ibid, 28.

Note 3: Ibid, 35.

Note 4: For more information about The Sleeping Beauty, please visit the National Ballet’s Virtual Museum,“The Sleeping Beauty,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed February 28, 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/The-Sleeping-Beauty

Note 5: Ibid.

Note 6: For more information about Nicholas Georgiadis, please visit the National Ballet’s Virtual Museum, “Nicolas Georgiadis,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed February 28, 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/Designers/Georgiadis

Note 7: Ibid.

Bibliography

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. (2015) The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. New York: Bloomsbury.

“Nicolas Georgiadis,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed February 28, 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/Designers/Georgiadis
“The Sleeping Beauty,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed February 28, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/The-Sleeping-Beauty