With American fashion the subject of the Costume Institute exhibition that is celebrated tomorrow with the first Met Gala in over two years, it wasn’t a question of if New York designers would riff on American fashion history, but how. In her press notes, Tory Burch announced the establishment of the Tory Burch Claire McCardell Fashion Fellowship at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, which houses the pioneering sportswear designer’s archives. The clothes on Mercer Street today, which Burch turned into a runway-cum-street-fair with stalls from local downtown businesses, were a tribute to McCardell’s insistence on ease and comfort, and the ingenuity with which she achieved them.
McCardell was at her peak 75 years ago, around the time the Costume Institute was becoming part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Designing during wartime and the years that followed meant having to make do with less, and emphasizing practicality. She might’ve been one of our first solutions-oriented designer, using hooks-and-eyes when other materials were being rationed, and creating easy-on-easy-off silhouettes for the way American women actually lived, not the way they ideally lived. Her most famous design was a $6.95 wrap-front dress dubbed the “pop-over.” There’s a famous Louise Dahl-Wolfe photograph of the dress in which the model wears an oven mitt on one hand and rests the other in a prodigious, well-placed pocket.
If that sounds workmanlike, this Tory collection was anything but. Fabulous, unexpected juxtapositions of color and sculptural silver jewelry added panache to the easy-wearing designs, like plaid or striped cotton dresses with hook-and-eye closures nipping the waist, and stretch cotton mocknecks worn with full cotton skirts. But the bigger point here was just how integral comfort is to glamour, a case she made with a plunge-front dress in color-blocked jersey, 2022’s version of a pop-over.
Burch came out for her bow in vintage McCardell that looked modern enough to walk the runway. “It’s about highlighting someone who had such an extraordinary impact on fashion over all, and in such a short amount of time,” she said. “To me, what’s amazing is that she let women feel unencumbered.” Driving that point home today were the flat shoes the models strode across Mercer Street’s cobblestones on, which included two reissues of McCardell originals: a striped ankle boot and a Capezio-made ballet flat.