American sportswear designer Claire McCardell’s name may not resonate with influencers but they may recognize her impact. Ballet flats, the tent-shaped Monastic dress, spaghetti straps, the “Popover” wrap dress and nine interchangeable sportswear pieces were some of her revolutionizing contributions. Now decades after McCardell’s death in 1958 at the age of 52, admirers in her hometown of Frederick, Md., are planning a 7-foot statue in her honor. Led by the Frederick Art Club, the Claire McCardell Project is more than one-third of the way to reaching its $209,000 fundraising goal, according to the project’s chairwoman Linda Moran.
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Sculptor Sarah Hempel Irani plans to present a scale model for what will be a bronze statue at the Oct. 11 launch party in her studio. The sculpture is expected to take 18 months to create from start-to-finish, barring any fund-raising or administrative red tape. The sculptor started with a photo of McCardell retrieved from the archives of Hood College, where the designer studied before spending a year in Paris and enrolling at Parsons. Irani hired a model, dressed her like McCardell and photographed her in multiple poses to try to get a likeness. “There’s a little bit of magic there from my point of view, trying to capture Claire. She’s not someone I have access to. I can’t meet here. I can just learn about her and look at pictures of her,” Irani said. “But I chose a dress that has two very big front pockets, because I want it to really shout, ‘This dress has pockets.’ It also has a lapel collar that she has kind of popped up.”
Marlene Young has loaned her private collection of Claire McCardell dresses for the occasion. With 100 members, the 123-year-old arts club is enlisting the talents of some artist and design-minded members. McCardell-inspired dresses are being made on based actual patterns from the designer. Irani said, “It’s amazing how many patterns at Jo-Ann’s [the fabric store chain] look very similar to Claire’s. She clearly has inspired a whole generation of patterns.“
The club is partnering with the Heritage Frederick of Maryland to hold an exhibition featuring artists’ work inspired by McCardell that will be paired with McCardell designs from the HFM. In addition, the Maryland Historical Society, which has a good deal of McCardell’s collection, has also inquired about a partnership.
Moran said, “We’re just collaborating with as many artistic and historic endeavors as we can. We want this to be not just a statue but something that can be used for educational and tourism purposes — a variety of opportunities for people to appreciate and also for public art. There is not much public art and certainly there is not a lot of public art for women. This is an effort to increase the visibility of successful women and also public art.”
The historic town’s only other statue is of another native, Francis Scott Key whose poem became the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The McCardell Project is underway at a time when advocates are calling for more statues of women in the art world and in public spaces, as well as ones created by women. The fact that McCardell landed a Time magazine cover in 1955 impressed Irani. “When cities see what other cities are doing, it catches on,” Irani said. “It seems like a funny thing to be fashionable — to have this kind of sculpture. I think a lot of cities feel that creating sculptures is unsurmountable [due to scale and budgets.] But if they feel it is important enough and there are enough women to stand behind it, it catches on.”
With the statue planned to be near the visitor’s center and the train station in Frederick, the idea is that let’s-meet-by-Claire will become a common refrain, Irani said. “And then people will start to talk about, ‘Who is this Claire?’”