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Books: What Shall I Wear?

Yesterday I mentioned that Claire McCardell was an inspiration for our latest pattern. So, given the “Before You Sew” theme this month and the recent discussion on sewing and wardrobe planning, I thought it would be the perfect time to share this rare book by designer Clarie McCardell, titled What Shall I Wear? The What, Where, When and How Much of Fashion.

Claire McCardell is known as the originator of the “American Look,” a stylish but casual approach to dress that has had tremendous influence on fashion even up to today. She was a designer who believed in comfort and functionality, but also embraced the idea of mass production. She truly designed for the lives of women, not just their bodies.

Published in 1956, this light book expands her philosophy into general advice on dress and wardrobe planning. Much of her advice seems severely outdated at first glance. For example, there is lengthy discussion of gloves and girdles and their necessity. And she repeatedly emphasizes that a woman should dress for her husband tastes. The book is clearly written for middle-class thin white suburban housewives (or aspiring housewives), and I have to admit that parts of it made me recall that it was considered a woman’s “job” to look a certain way. She even writes at one point “It is taken for granted that none of you are overweight; it is accepted as fact that none of you are perfectly proportioned.” Woe to the reader who might actually have been chubby!

But still, there is a spirit of independence and humor that I think transcends the context of the era. Her passion for comfortable, practical fabrics like wool jersey make you realize that your own taste and personality ought to trump fancy labels. If you prefer jersey to charmeuse, that’s what you should wear. To me, her basic message is to wear the things that fit your life and make you happy.

I also loved her approach to jewelry, which she describes as a collection of little things that mean something to her personally: “I am much more interested in the Fashion value of jewelry, and Tiffany would label my collection junk. But to me it is very special junk that I have been collecting, piece by piece, from Woolworth’s, from Austria, from attics, from antique shops- and from the time I was given my first spending money.”

She takes a contrary approach to outerwear, suggesting that women have a collection of fun and diverse coats instead of one good basic one. She invites the reader to ignore trends that don’t suit her, to embrace subtlety and personality in your clothing, and to dress for oneself, even if no one will see you.

If you can ignore the narrowness of perspective and the outdated world view, Claire McCardell invites you to examine your own tastes, your own life, and to wear the things that bring you joy and forget the rest of it.

{images above: book cover, popover dress 1942, sundress via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wool Ensemble via Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection }

Sarai Mitnick


Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.



September 14, 2010 #

I’ve been trying to get my hands on a copy of this book for years, so thank you for the little overview! I especially appreciate her view on costume jewelry; I have long been collecting little bits and bauble that amuse me. None are particularly expensive or deemed “fine jewelry”, but I think that makes them all the more fun and personal.

– Casey
blog |


September 14, 2010 #

I’ll echo what Mary Beth said… I nabbed it via interlibrary loan.

✄ Fabric U ✄

September 14, 2010 #

^Casey, you might be able to get this book through an interlibrary loan. Just seeing this pictures makes me wanna try. Both dresses here look so timeless. I’d wear all three in a couple of heartbeats. Mary Beth


September 14, 2010 #

Just to clarify, the images are of McCardell dresses, but they’re not pictured in the book (sadly)… the book is illustrated with cute little stylized drawings though!

Sabrina Clementine

September 14, 2010 #

Love the basic message…that’s essentially what I try to follow when dressing myself. I’m in love with that plaid dress!!


September 14, 2010 #

“To me, her basic message is to wear the things that fit your life and make you happy.”

A wonderful, admirable philosophy. I wish I liked her clothes.

Thanks for the article.


September 14, 2010 #

I love that plaid halter dress. Any plans for a Colette halter pattern in the future? :)

I love the new Crepe, too, by the way!

Seams Forever

September 15, 2010 #

i just love waking up to your musings here on the colette patterns blog! it’s such a pleasure!

Ali B.

October 8, 2010 #

I just stumbled across this post and was curious if you know anything about the reissue of this book that was supposed to happen last year? As early as spring of 2009 and as late as fall 2009 I’ve seen blog posts encouraging people to pre-order their copies on Amazon but then nothing was released. Do you know anything about this? thanks!


October 8, 2010 #

I’m sorry Ali, I don’t know anything about it!


September 29, 2012 #

The book (with a different cover design than the one you showed) is now due to be reissued on November 8, 2012. Don’t know what happened last time and hope nothing happens this time. It is most definitely listed on Amazon, so sign up! I’ve owned a copy for years (since 1957 to be exact) (I was just a kid) and lovelovelove it… still.


February 8, 2013 #

My favourite piece of clothing are some very worn down, but oh so comfy linen trousers – great for keeping the malaria-mosquitos out! Although I also love my newly made super-crazy orange polkadot (with a different background) that I finished last night…it’s too crazy to wear though!