The woman who invented ballet flats was from Frederick.
Designer Claire McCardell also pioneered separates, sewed pockets in dresses, and popularized comfortable, durable fabrics like jersey and cotton. In an era of tight skirts and girdled silhouettes, she invented the Monastic dress, a simple frame of bias-cut fabric that hung from the shoulders and cinched loosely with a belt. Any woman who’s built a capsule wardrobe or tied a drawstring waist or depended on the same sturdy cotton work dress owes a debt of gratitude to McCardell. American designers like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein can trace their practical styles directly back to the Frederick native, said Rebecca Arnold, a senior lecturer in the history of dress and textiles at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art.
Yet many people outside the fashion industry have never heard McCardell’s name.
“I think because of her early death, and her family’s decision to close down the label, it meant she kind of disappeared from public view,” said Marita Loose, a member of the Frederick Art Club. “But in her time she was very well-known and very well-loved and highly respected in the field of fashion design.”
So respected that Loose is on a steering committee to commemorate McCardell in bronze. The designer’s relative obscurity, especially compared to her influence on American fashion, inspired a plan for a new McCardell statue along Carroll Creek. Though it’s still years from completion, the project would be one of the only public acknowledgements of the boundary-breaking dressmaker in her own hometown.
That could be considered a little surprising given McCardell’s deep roots in Frederick. She grew up on Rockwell Terrace as the only daughter of Adrian Leroy McCardell, a state senator and the president of Frederick County National Bank. She graduated from Frederick High School and studied home economics at Hood for two years. Even after she moved away, McCardell came home frequently to visit her parents and three younger brothers, said Melissa Henemyer, the program and events coordinator for The Historical Society of Frederick County. When McCardell died of colon cancer in New York, at the age of 52, the news made front-page headlines in Frederick. She was buried in her hometown, too, in a family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Loose, who graduated from Hood and worked in fashion retail, was already familiar with McCardell when the art club hosted a presentation on her by the Historical Society of Frederick County. But McCardell’s local roots came as a surprise to some of the club’s other members, who weren’t familiar with the designer’s work.
“Some people had not heard of her at all,” Loose said. “But I think she was just immediately inspirational. I mean, here you have this woman who revolutionized fashion, who continues to influence designers today, and she’s scarcely celebrated in her own hometown.”
The art club, a 122-year-old Frederick institution, is now at the beginning of a mission to publicize McCardell as one of the city’s most influential figures. Last month, club members established the nonprofit Claire McCardell Project Fund with the Community Foundation of Frederick County. The goal of the $200,000 fundraiser is to erect a “larger-than-life” bronze statue of McCardell along Carroll Creek, accompanied by a wayside exhibit explaining her legacy. Local sculptor Sarah Hempel Irani, the artist selected to helm the project, is already working to scale the 5’7” designer into a 7½-foot sculpture.
Loose was quick to emphasize that the project is still in its nascent phase. Irani and club members anticipate two years of fundraising, with a projected 2021 debut for the finished project.
The plans must also garner legislative approval because the desired spot for the statue is on public city land. On Aug. 13, according to a news release from the art club, the city's Public Art Commission approved the design for the McCardell statue, which will now move to the city's Parks and Recreation Commission and then the Board of Aldermen for final approval.
Constructing the statue is also a painstaking process of scaling clay models to the final size, perfecting every new version until a final mold is cast in bronze, Irani said.
But for the women involved, the project is more than an effort to properly commemorate a seminal designer.
Given McCardell’s contributions, it’s almost shocking that she — a woman whose designs are displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a woman who helped push sportswear into the domain of high fashion — isn’t better known. For Arnold, it’s almost difficult to explain the designer’s impact because her contributions have become so ingrained in popular style.
Denim skirts and jackets are now a perennial closet staple. There’s nothing revolutionary about pairing the same blouse with a skirt or trousers or jumper. But when McCardell entered the fashion industry, it was during a period when some women were still changing their clothes multiple times a day. The American fashion industry, as it stood, was best known for stealing and recreating designs from French couture, Arnold explained.
McCardell was part of a new generation of designers to eschew French mimicry, creating a national style tailored to a modern lifestyle. Her clothes were designed to fit a variety of body types, giving women the option to customize their outfits based on their own taste and style. Her choice of fabrics was influenced by the advent of laundromats and household washing machines, creating a demand for clothing that could survive repeated wash cycles.
“At the time, most spectacular clothes were all about the viewer,” Arnold said. “Whereas McCardell’s clothes were all about the wearer. She was designing clothes that she wanted to wear. And she had a sense that other women were looking for garments that could fit an active lifestyle.”
That the designer isn’t a household name, especially in Frederick, fits in with the overall shortage of women commemorated by statues, memorials, and monuments across the country, Irani said. She and Loose connected the art club’s project with a nationwide effort to “break the bronze ceiling” of female representation.
The phrase has been co-opted by cities from Lexington, Kentucky to New York, where the first-ever bronze statue of women in Central Park — Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — will be installed by 2020. In the city of Frederick, McCardell will be one of the first — if not the only — public statues dedicated to a real, historical woman, based on archival research of existing statuary. There is the Victory Monument at the intersection of Bentz and Second streets, a bronze memorial to the county’s World War I veterans. But the robed woman on top is less a historical figure than a physical representation of victory, complete with a classical sword, according to research.
“We don’t do enough to represent women in history and this is a start,” said Mary Boswell, the executive director of The Historical Society of Frederick County. “It’s a really good example of what we should be doing.”
To Irani, it’s equally important that the art club plans to cast McCardell in bronze.
“The thing about bronze is that it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, and it says a lot about who we value,” the artist said. “Look at the public statues in any city and they’ll teach you a lot about the kind of people we’ve historically looked up to.”
The art club plans to install McCardell across from the Union Knitting Mills building, a historic factory known for manufacturing nylon stockings with experimental Dupont fabrics.
“Claire was very well-known for using Dupont fabrics, so it made sense,” Loose said. “She was interested in the newer fabrics that offered the type of movement and ease that she was looking for.”
Irani is still working on the design for the statue, which she plans to unveil in the coming weeks. There’s a lot to consider — McCardell’s expression, her posture, the direction she’ll face along the creek. There’s only one thing the sculptor knows for sure.
McCardell’s dress is going to have pockets.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters.
This story has been updated to report that the city's Public Art Commission approved the design for the statue on Aug. 13.