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Vintage Book Review: "What Shall I Wear" by Claire McCardell

Vintage Book Review: "What Shall I Wear" by Claire McCardell

Posted by AEM on Feb 11th 2016

Many of you may already be aware of the iconic American fashion designer Claire McCardell. Known for her use of "casual" fabrics like denim and cotton, McCardell created stylish clothing for women that was actually comfortable and practical--as well as figure flattering! What you may not have known is that in 1956 she wrote a wonderful book, full of advice about fashion and personal style--called, appropriately enough, “What Shall I Wear?”.

I was curious to read her book, since I had admired her clothing designs, but I did not expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I did. McCardell’s writing style is unpretentious, full of humor and very conversational. It feels a bit like getting advice from a friend about fashion--if, that is, your friend happens to be a fabulous vintage designer!

Of course, after half a century, some of McCardell’s advice does not entirely apply to current fashion issues. For example, specific advice about what to wear—or not to wear—at specific times of the day in specific places is less relevant today. On the suburban housewife, driving her spouse to the train in the morning: “You will be in the spotlight at eight o’clock when you drive your husband to the train and go on to do the marketing.” (Gimlet-eyed suburban neighbors were lurking behind every corner of the train station and the grocery in order to judge your fashion mishaps, apparently!)

However, as a student of fashion history, learning a bit about the rules of fashion in the mid-1950s can be of interest--regardless of whether those particular rules still need to be followed the way that they once were. In fact, this is one of the great pleasures of reading this book for a vintage fashion lover. Discovering the little things about past fashion rules that might not be remembered today, such as when to wear—and when to take off—your gloves, or what your shoes might (secretly) be telling people: “An ankle strap, a buckle at the wrong time of day, something too shiny trimming your pump…it can make you misunderstood.” Mid-century ladies had so many fashion worries, it seems!

What, then, makes the book so inspiring to a modern reader, you ask? The bulk of the book expands on one main theme, which IS completely relevant to today. McCardell emphasizes again and again the importance of dressing YOURSELF, as yourself--creating a personal style and having fun with fashion, instead of being intimidated by it.

As she advises in the introduction, “Don’t try to live up to Fashion. First of all, stay firmly you. And if Fashion seems to be saying something that isn’t right for you, ignore it.” And, “Fashion does not demand a submissive spirit—in fact it asks for a certain independence…The more of yourself in your clothes the better. Your imagination, your thought, your time, your energy.” In subsequent chapters, she focuses on the real concerns of a real shopper (whether now, or in the 1950s): what can I afford, what makes me happy when I wear it, what do I actually need, and where and when will I wear it?

Certainly, in our era of fast fashion, with our increasing consumption of cheap, disposable clothing, McCardell’s advice about shopping for quality and utility over quantity and trendiness is certainly relevant—presciently so, in fact! She reminds us that “To know clothes, either as a designer or a woman who earns the title “well-dressed”, you must first of all love clothes and be willing to train your eye and your mind so that good points register and bad points reveal.” How many of the limp, cheap, poorly made and environmentally unsound mass-market “bargains” that we buy with such abandon would pass this test, if we thought a little more before we bought?

For the fashion-challenged, her advice about what to keep in mind when planning wardrobe purchases and actually shopping for clothing is spot on. And, for those of us who love clothes and find creative satisfaction in choosing the perfect scarf to complete an outfit, or (finally!) finding the perfect shoes that are chic but still allow one to walk comfortably, McCardell’s problem-solving approach to fashion choices still rings true after almost 60 years. Plus, for vintage clothing lovers and fans of McCardell’s own design work, the book is a window into her thoughts and processes when designing.

As an added bonus, the modern re-print of the book that is readily available includes the quirky and wonderful line drawings from the original 1956 edition, as well as photos of some of McCardell’s own designs. “What Shall I Wear” is a little gem of a book that kept me smiling AND made me think. For anyone who has ever stood in front of a packed closet and despairingly thought “I have nothing to wear!” this vintage how-to book may help you to refine your sense of the who, what, when and where of your own personal clothing choices, and hopefully have some fun at the same time!