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Two Books Honor Innovative American Designer Claire McCardell

Two children’s books—which adults just may want for themselves—pay tribute to influential American clothing designer Claire McCardell.

The 32-page picture book, Claire: The Little Girl Who Climbed to the Top and Changed the Way Women Dress, tells the story of the innovative McCardell through words and pen-and-ink drawings. The 48-page coloring book, Claire’s Closet, contains 20 illustrations accompanied by descriptions. Both books are authored by Debra Scala Giokas and illustrated by Mary Ryan Reeves. They are to be released by publisher Chandelier Street on May 24, the birthday of the late designer.

Even more celebration of the revolutionary designer is planned later this year. Frederick Arts Club of Maryland is honoring McCardell, who grew up there, with a bronze statue in her likeness. Find out more here. 

Who was Claire McCardell?

A pioneer in clothing design and a successful businesswoman, McCardell is credited with changing fashion culture through her comfortable yet chic sportswear designs from the 1930s through the 1950s. Her simple, wearable, and affordable creations, which became known as the American Look, were a whole different approach from the formal and expensive French designs of the time. They were made for more athletic women and for a growing number of women who had responsibilities outside their homes immediately before, during, and after World War II.

In 1942, McCardell invented the Pop-over dress, a front-wrap dress intended to be “popped over” another garment and worn while women worked in the home. The original cotton Pop-over dress featured a large quilted patch pocket and complementary oven mitt.

Color illustration of the Claire McCardell Popover dress
Claire McCardell’s Pop-over dress from 1942 was comfortable and affordable. Illustration by Karen Meyer, Threads #111.

Her highly functional garments often included pockets and adjustable waistlines, as in the case of the Pop-over dress. She also was a proponent of mix-and-match separates.

But the McCardell design that first captured the attention of the fashion world was the Monastic dress. She created it for Townley Frocks in 1938. Described as “tentlike” for its fullness, the bias-cut dress had no darts, but it tied at the waist to give the wearer shape. It was this dress that inspired the McCardell picture and coloring books.

Inspired by the designer

Author Scala Giokas first saw the dress and learned of McCardell through the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2018 exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

“I am Catholic and I love clothes and I was intrigued by her monastic dress,” she says.

Months before the exhibition, Scala Giokas completed a class on writing children’s picture books with Emma Walton Hamilton at Stony Brook University at Southampton. Scala Giokas went on to read dozens of picture books, and “I started to notice what was missing on the shelves,” she says. “I never came across one on McCardell for kids.”

She got to work.

Two McCardell books created

“I read her autobiography, What Shall I Wear (Simon and Schuster, 1956), and then read as many articles as I could find about her. I thought it would make an inspiring story for children, especially girls. Here is someone who wanted to play sports . . . but not in dresses. She solved her own problem with creativity.”

Scala Giokas teamed up with a veteran illustrator. Mary “Sam” Ryan Reeves lives in McCardell’s hometown of Frederick, Maryland, and even attended Hood College, just like the designer.

“Sam and I are literally on the same page. I gave her the words and she had a vision,” Scala Giokas says. “I told her to make this book as much her own, as mine.”

Partial black-and-white drawing from the Claire picture book
Take a sneak peek at part of a pen-and-ink illustration by Mary Ryan Reeves from the Claire picture book by Debra Scala Giokas.

Scala Giokas’ admiration for the designer grew as she researched. She was “intrigued  by (McCardell’s) childhood fascination with paper dolls and how she cut them up to mix and match outfits. That was the precursor to her idea of separates,” Scala Giokas says.


Pen-and-ink illustration by Mary Ryan Reeves from the Claire picture book
Pen-and-ink illustrations by Mary Ryan Reeves are featured in the Claire picture book about American designer Claire McCardell.

“What you do as a child is what you should continue to do. That’s the message I want kids to take away, too. Do what you love.”

While Scala Giokas has no immediate plans for book signings, she says, “I would welcome the chance to talk to children about Claire. I think she has the ability to encourage them to dream big.”

Go to Debra Scala Giokas’ site for a list of booksellers that are taking preorders.


Sources and more about Claire McCardell

“Pop-over.” Claire McCardell dress, 1942. Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/84029

Le Zotte, Jennifer. “What a 1950s Fashion Maven Might Teach Us About What To Wear.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 8 June 2015,  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/1950s-designer-claire-mccardell-might-teach-us-about-what-wear-180955520/

Evitts Dickinson, Elizabeth. “A Dress for Everyone.” Washington Post Magazine, December 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2018/12/12/feature/the-designer-who-radically-suggested-that-women-should-wear-whats-comfortable/




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  1. judylane33 | | #1

    Reading about these recommended books, I learned about a creative, talented, and determined woman and how she changed choices available to my mother, myself, and my daughter. I followed the internal links and peeked into an interesting world I knew nothing about. When you make your own clothing from fabric you pick out, you avoid a lot of "shoulds" others push at you.

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