Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin and the Invention of American Sportswear
If haute couture is resolutely French, then sportswear is unwaveringly American. From functional outerwear to blue jeans to day dresses, sportswear is made to move, and at its best, exhibits a vigorous American attitude. Much of what we consider sportswear today was initially designed for a specific work environment (like the aforementioned blue jeans for mining and gold panning), but Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin were the first to codify these elements into a cohesive body of work.
Like many other American designers who followed in their footsteps, design contemporaries Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin built up their careers working for manufacturers on New York’s famous 7th Avenue. In the spirit of American design, the pair’s greatest accomplishments included keeping the women they dressed (and the lives they led) at the forefront of their minds. The arc of each designer’s career depicts how decades of marvelous innovation, agenda-setting design, and the invention of what some call “The American Look” still inspires countless references on catwalks everywhere.
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Famed art scholar and past curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, Richard Martin once said, “More than any other designer in the tradition of American sportswear, [Claire] McCardell reevaluated dress to the principles of functionality and truth to materials that are the characteristics of Modernism in the arts.” She worked anonymously for an established garment manufacturer, Townley Frocks, before being awarded her namesake label in 1940. From her debut collection in 1941, McCardell established her signature design elements: absolute functionality, soft construction, and easy-to-wear fabrics.
Soon after, McCardell created what is possibly her most heralded piece—the ‘Pop-over’ dress. American women turned away from the laguid delicacy of the prior decade and instead embraced McCardell’s practical style. The Pop-over dress was a refreshing new shape, but above all it was functional—created in response to a request from Harper’s Bazaar for an all-purpose housework outfit. Made from topstitched denim with a wrap front, large patch pocket and attached oven mit, it sold in the tens of thousands at an affordable $6.95. Its inherent domesticity might not read as particularly progressive in the current climate, but at the time, it was the first garment that addressed the specific household needs of women during the war-era. The Pop-over dress shed light on the potential of day clothes, an area of dress where McCardell would continue to reveal her inventive nature.
Though some of McCardell’s breakthroughs coincided with or even predated developments in couture, such as her dirndl skirts that came ahead of Dior’s New Look in 1947, she never faltered from her easy, comfort-focused construction that allowed for maximum mobility. McCardell was determined that every area of her customers’ lives be taken care of, and after mastering the highly-functional Pop-over dress, she turned to ‘playclothes’—a form of activewear typically worn while at the beach. In the process, she invented the idea of designer swimwear, bringing the same level of technical brilliance to what are often considered throwaway pieces of casual attire. Like many of her clothes, they often relied on cleverly cut pieces of comfortable fabric that were wrapped, looped and tied to encompass the body without ever restricting it. There were countless iterations designed during her career, but all maintained the same rigorous sense of aesthetic proportions and distinct lines.
Bonnie Cashin was an equally potent powerhouse of American design only a few years younger than McCardell. According to New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, the California-born designer started out by making ballet costumes for local companies while in high school. It was only a short time later when traveling that her talent was spotted: Louis Adler, of wholesaler Adler & Adler, approached the young Cashin about designing. She had a more than respectable tenure at the company that spanned several years creating designs infused with what would become her signature sense of wit and fun, but it wasn’t until she formed her own company that her reputation was truly cemented.
In 1953, Cashin debuted her eponymous label in collaboration with women’s clothing manufacturer, Philip Sills, with whom she worked for 25 years. For Cashin’s first collection, she made every garment out of kidskin in vibrant colors, making her the first designer to attempt such a feat. Although the clothes bore the prim, tailored silhouettes of their time, they relied on none of the traditional techniques and structures associated with dressmaking. For Cashin to achieve the desired fit when working with such dense, yet delicate materials is a stunning embodiment of her design expertise.
However, creative use of materials is not Cashin’s sole contribution to the historical cannon. As author Jan Reeder noted in her exhaustively researched tome High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cashin was greatly inspired by travel and garb worn by different peoples around the world, such as the poncho found throughout many South American countries. She transformed the traditional version, giving hers a neat collar and a placket secured with hardware that ran down the center. Loose layers like the poncho, referred to by Cashin as ‘layering’ or ‘layered dressing,” were first seen in print in 1952 according to Rennolds Milbank.
Inspired by the turnlocks that kept the top of her vintage convertible down, Cashin introduced a petite brass version that acted as a practical closure on gloves, jackets, dresses, and the many leather accessories she designed in collaboration with Coach from 1962 to 1974. Coach hired Cashin as their first designer in hopes of transforming the brand from a manufacturer of briefcases and tame leather goods into the accessories behemouth it is recognized as today. At Coach, Cashin was the first to make leather accessories in bold colors—coral, teal, crimson, canary yellow—which have subsequently become Coach staples that dominate store shelves decades on. Cashin’s embrace of leather goods and her unique way of treating materials laid the groundwork for decades of future success for Coach. Eleanor Lambert, founder of the International Best Dressed List and New York Fashion Week, said “The look of today...was designed ten years ago by Bonnie Cashin”—and how remarkably right she was right.
Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin, as different as they may have been, were the first individuals to jump headlong into the read-to-wear category, and together, built the foundation for American fashion. McCardell and Cashin took it upon themselves to find a new manners of dressing, honing their innovative skills to address wartime restrictions that could have otherwise mired American style. Cashin once mused,
Fashion is now. Fashion is acceptance. Fashion is popularity. A large part of my work is anti-fashion. It is the future. It is conjecture. It has not yet been accepted. McCardell and Cashin did start conjuring the future, one so radical in philosophy that the rest of fashion is still chasing it all these years later.