Debra Scala Giokas and Mary Ryan Reeves live hundreds of miles apart. They’ve never met. But after the pandemic forced them each into lockdown, they forged a close — if virtual — friendship, rooted in a shared admiration for a long-dead Frederick woman who forever changed the fashion industry.
And on Monday, their efforts to cement her legacy will come to fruition.
“Claire: The little girl who climbed to the top and changed the way women dress” tells the story of Claire McCardell, a Frederick-born designer credited with bringing pockets, ballet flats, hoodies and more to modern American women.
Scala Giokas, of Long Island, wrote the children’s book, and Ryan Reeves, a 54-year Frederick resident, crafted its pen-and-ink illustrations.
“It’s really a story about a little girl who had her own mind,” Scala Giokas said, “and she created something to answer the problem that she had.”
Born in 1905, McCardell grew up on Rockwell Terrace. As a young girl, she loved to climb trees and play sports — and she wondered why she had to do so in stiff, cumbersome dresses while her brothers played in comfort.
Eventually, McCardell studied in New York City and Paris and landed a job at clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks. She rose to prominence in the fashion industry quickly, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1955.
Today, she’s remembered for her then-radical philosophy that women deserved access to practical, comfortable clothing. She moved zippers from the back to the side so women could dress themselves without help, and she used everyday fabrics without complicated care instructions.
“She was making a statement about women’s role in society,” Scala Giokas said. “She really was ahead of her time not to dress women like little porcelain dolls on the shelf.”
The book project began in 2018, when Scala Giokas saw one of McCardell’s dresses on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’d long loved fashion and dreamed of writing a children’s book, and when she read about McCardell’s mission to make women’s clothing functional, “something just clicked.”
So she dove in. She devoured McCardell’s book, “What Shall I Wear?,” and reached out to the Frederick Art Club, hoping to connect with artists in the designer’s hometown.
That’s when Ryan Reeves came aboard. Ryan Reeves loves to draw and worked as an art teacher for years after graduating from Hood College — also McCardell’s alma mater.
Frederick Art Club president Marilyn Bagel connected Scala Giokas and Ryan Reeves, and the two women call her their “fairy godmother” for bringing them together.
Over the past year, the women have spent hours on phone and Zoom calls, poring over Scala Giokas’ manuscript and figuring out how best to translate it into illustrations. During the pain of pandemic lockdowns, each woman said the project gave them a creative outlet and a new friend.
“It’s just been demonstrating the power of connectivity with women and the internet,” Ryan Reeves said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Ryan Reeves said she chose pen and ink as her medium to stay true to the style of the time in which McCardell was working. She’d spend days thinking about how to execute each illustration, but as soon as she put pen to paper, she said, it was “a piece of cake.”
She drew so many illustrations, in fact, that the women decided to add a companion coloring book called “Claire’s Closet.”
Scala Giokas and Ryan Reeves want their books to serve as an inspiration for children — young girls and budding fashion designers in particular. McCardell’s name is well-known in the fashion world, Scala Giokas said, but most people haven’t heard of her.
Soon, though, McCardell will be memorialized in more ways than one. In addition to the picture and coloring books — which Ryan Reeves said would be available at local bookshops, Barnes & Nobles nationwide and online via Target and Walmart — a seven-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of McCardell is slated to be installed at Carroll Creek in the fall, a project the Frederick Art Club has spearheaded.
And in the meantime, their pockets, spaghetti straps and ballet flats will continue to remind them of McCardell.
“All of these things, she gave to us,” Scala Giokas said. “I just was excited to be able to bring her story to light.”