vintage clothes

Claire McCardell mystery dress

I love a good mystery. I love collecting clues, assembling narratives, and ultimately (hopefully) solving mysteries. When I bought this black Claire McCardell dress a few months ago, I didn’t realize what a mystery it actually was.

An early 1940s Claire McCardell dress

An early 1940s Claire McCardell dress

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? A wrap style dress with gathered skirt, hooks on the side, all things McCardell was known for (in fact, they may even be considered “McCardellisms”). But as a collector and admirer of her work, a few things were a bit off about it. First, there were no pockets in this dress. I’d read that when McCardell rejoined the Townley firm in late 1940, she insisted on having her name on the label and on her dresses having pockets. So the lack of pockets initially confused me, but then I realized that General Limitation Order L-85 went into effect in the spring of 1942, which prohibited interior pockets in wool dresses to save fabric. It also explained why the skirt was gathered only in front, and not all the way around. Under L-85, the sweep of a wool dress could be no more than 74″, pretty much eliminating full skirts. So this dress was almost certainly manufactured during WWII, under the restrictions of L-85.

I was also a little confused by the drop waist. A few folks suggested that it might be a 70s remake, that her dresses typically had natural or high waists so the drop waist was probably not her design. Then I found this advertisement, from a 1942 newspaper:

"Winter lovelies by Claire McCardell... Wonderful fashions, for all day, all winter! Soft... pretty... highly individual... and as typically American as apple pie! They're ours — and yours — exclusively!" Ad for L.S. Ayres & Co., 1942.

“Winter lovelies by Claire McCardell… Wonderful fashions, for all day, all winter! Soft… pretty… highly individual… and as typically American as apple pie! They’re ours — and yours — exclusively!” Ad for L.S. Ayres & Co., 1942.

The dress on the left is my dress design, though this one is a different fabric – mine is a wool rayon blend, that appears like a jersey from the outside but a rayon underneath. It’s weird. But the hooks on this clearly go below the waist, and the skirt starts at hip level. So that’s legit.

Ah, but the hooks. As far as I knew, the only hooks that McCardell used in her clothing were these adorable little gilt hooks with round eyes, like this:

Clare McCardell dress gilt hooks

Which, by the way, are notoriously difficult to find for replacement. Anyway, the hooks on my dress are large and inelegant, in black.

hooks on Claire McCardell dress ca. 1942-44

But, if you look at the image in the ad, these hooks are large, on the outside of the dress, just like mine. At first I wondered if this might be artistic liberty on the part of the illustrator to communicate the idea of “hooks”. But then I came across this image from 1943:

Photo by Horst P Horst

Photo by Horst P Horst

This is from Vogue, June 15, 1943. The hooks are the same size and style as the ones on my dress (albeit the wrong color, wh’ev). So I feel pretty confident that the hooks on my dress are original and it’s not a knockoff.


The biggest part of this mystery is the label in the dress.

2016-01-12 18.10.07

This is a label I’ve never seen before, in a typeface I’ve never seen before, without mention to Townley. Since we’ve dated this dress to 1942 or 43, we know that McCardell was back at Townley at this time. Townley closed for reorganization, partly due to the overwhelming success of McCardell’s monastic dress and its flurry of copies, from 1938 to 1940. During this time, McCardell was working at Hattie Carnegie where she was not getting credit for her designs. She also worked for a low-cost label called Win-Sum. At what point she had to manufacture a dress with only her name on it, however, I have no idea.

So, while I’m confident that this dress is a genuine Claire McCardell from the early 1940s, I have no explanation for this label. When McCardell rejoined the Townley firm in 1940, she reportedly shared equal billing on the label. Where did this label come from? Did she do work on her own, dresses that Townley wouldn’t produce? This simple dress hardly seems like an unsafe bet for them. Was it a label added later? No, it was likely contemporary to the dress; a friend of mine researching McCardell found an advertisement from 1944 that featured this label, just as it is here, prominently at the top. I don’t have an image of this to share, unfortunately, but I’m still looking–if there was one advertisement out there, there are bound to be more.

So, a rather unsatisfying end to this mystery, but at least I’m confident the dress is, to borrow a phrase, The Real McCardell, likely dating from 1942-1944. As to why this label was used and not the Townley label, is still a mystery.

in February 29, 2016

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  • Esz March 6, 2016 at 6:49 am

    This could be a bit of a long shot – but maybe it wasn’t a production dress at all? Maybe a personal commission or even a personal dress? One of her own? Something she made for a friend? That is the only reason I could see for having her own label on it, and it being so hard to find, especially when all the other signs point to the era being early 40s.

    • jessica March 7, 2016 at 5:29 pm

      That was my initial suspicion. I know that in the early 1940s she designed clothing for at least one Broadway star, Vera Zorina, so it’s possible she could have had other private clients. Diana Vreeland reportedly became a fan of Claire’s after receiving a dress of hers from Hattie Carnegie. She was not unknown at the time, so others may have sought her out. The wrinkle in that theory is the advertisement my friend found (the one I can’t post a picture of) that was for a Syracuse department store–an illustration of the label is very prominent across the top of the page. This leads me to think that it was something put on mass-produced dresses, but maybe only for that store? Maybe she had some kind of deal just with them that predated her return to Townley? I haven’t found any other information or advertising for that store yet.

  • Giselle December 4, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    This is beyond intriguing! I am so glad I came across your blog and this specific post. Thanks so very much for writing and posting this!
    I really loved reading this

  • Charity July 11, 2019 at 10:52 am

    When you say the hooks are difficult to find, do you mean impossible, or is there a way to get them? I’ve been all over Google with no luck. 😂

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