This Reissued ’50s Handbook Is A Trove Of Brilliant (And Hilarious) Fashion Advice

It is not an exaggeration to say that the concept of American fashion would not be what it is today without the designer Claire McCardell, who is credited with inventing the idea of ​​American sportswear with her pragmatic approach to clothes in the 1940s and ’50s.” Most of my ideas come from trying to solve my own problems – problems just like yours,” she wrote, “I like to be able to zip my own zippers, hook my own eyes. I need a dress that can cook a dinner and then come out and meet the guests.”

In 1956 she released What Shall I Wear?a book of fashion advice for women of all ages that is being reprinted this September (with a foreword from Tory Burch). Considering the enduring appeal of her style and point of view, it’s not surprising that her advice rings just as true in 2022 as it did back then. (“Like every woman in the world, after your first trip to Santa Fe, you are going to have a turquoise and silver period.” I haven’t been to Santa Fe, but I know in my heart that she is absolutely right.) McCardell’s lighthearted tone means that even the parts of the book that are painfully out of sync with today’s world – lots of advice about dressing for your husband and the neighbourhood wives – are an invitation to laugh rather than roll your eyes (or at least do both). My favourite bit: “If you have a taxi lover in your home, be sure to have plenty of spindly heels to give him an excuse to take a taxi. Think of it: Your shoes can soothe his conscience.” You simply cannot argue with that! Here are the most important lessons from McCardell’s book.

What Shall I Wear? by Clare McCardell is out now.

Know your audience

“If your maiden aunt finds a ladybug on the lapel of your suit unamusing, don’t blame the maiden aunt. Blame yourself. You have worn the ladybug for the wrong audience.” McCardell writes this early on in the book, and she’s absolutely right. We all know what sort of things we can get away with wearing, whether we are at work or with friends (or even which friends we are with). Do we want to blend in or be the talk of the evening? These are all things we take into consideration when getting dressed, but doing the mental calculation at the time of shopping would also likely save us from spending on those things that end up in the closet with the tags still on because they never seem quite right when you put them on. What is thrilling to me is that even back then McCardell was not one to tamp down flourishes of creativity or eccentricity; instead the message is simple. Wear the weird thing where the weird things will be appreciated! Of course, if you wanted your maiden aunt to be unamused by your outfit, well, that would be dandy, too.

Know your setting

“Take advantage of where you are going to wear it. If you go to Venice, where the sea is the colour of the scene, be sure to bring a wardrobe of blues and greens along. Or deliberately wear dark red because it looks lovely with turquoise.” McCardell speaks at length about the importance of colour, the way introducing a bright colour that you’ve never worn before can be the equivalent of a makeover, and the importance of considering colour along with fabric (“turquoise in satin and turquoise in jersey are two entirely different stories”). I just love the idea of ​​thinking about colour as it matches or contrasts with your intended surroundings. Perhaps this is most obvious when we purchase clothes for a vacation because we more easily think of ourselves as dressing for a fantasy (the idealised vacation version of ourselves), but why not bring that same energy into our everyday dressing? It’s exactly the reason why seeing one of Christopher John Rogers’s creations out in the wild in the city can be so thrilling – an oasis for the eyes!

Earrings are the essential accessory

“In an increasingly hatless society, earrings play an important role because they give you a dressed-up look at the top to harmonise with your long gloves, your cocktail-hour shoes.” McCardell spotlights the importance of wearing the right gloves and the right hats for each occasion, things that are no longer part of our daily uniform, but this sentence vindicated my somewhat recent obsession with earrings. After I get dressed every morning, there are times where I change earrings a few times – gold or silver, chunky or studs, dangling, mismatched: There are so many possibilities! – and I find that they do play an important role in balancing out whatever is being worn underneath them. Now that we are a hatless society, though (beanies don’t count!), I am considering whether it is time to bring a jaunty little everyday hat into my wardrobe, perhaps like the ones Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen showed at The Row’s resort collection.


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