McCardell playsuit and a Karan jumpsuit


Rompers, jumpsuits and playsuits. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're all over the place. Emerging a few years ago as a runway trend, they've reached critical mass and can be purchased at just about any youth-oriented clothing retailer. As we all know, fashion runs in cycles, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look at similar garments from our collection. First up, a Claire McCardell linen playsuit.

McCardell romperPlaysuit
Claire McCardell
Gift of Mrs. Jerry Wald

Claire McCardell is often considered the quintessential American designer. Throughout her career, McCardell excelled at designing wearable garments with unconstructed silhouettes from washable fabrics. Despite her emphasis on comfort and practicality, McCardell's garments always exuded casual, sophisticated elegance. McCardell's design abilities were best described by designer Norman Norell in the 1970s: "Claire could take five dollars worth of common calico and turn out a dress a smart woman would wear anywhere."1 Though McCardell designed refined day and evening dresses, she also had a sure hand with activewear. Whether designed for an evening event or a day at the pool, McCardell's garments often featured similar design elements.

This blue linen playsuit features several McCardellisms, including easily accessible buttons, washable fabric and a bias-cut wrap bodice. McCardell often utilized bias-cut fabric to create a close-fitting bodice and to create visual interest when using patterned textiles. Because McCardell disdained hard to reach fasteners, buttons, zippers and hooks often became functional design elements. The ball-button closure seen on this playsuit would have been easy for the wearer to fasten and unfasten. McCardell described the problem of tricky fasteners in her 1956 book What Shall I Wear? with the observation that "a woman may live alone and like it, but you may soon come to regret it if you wrench your arm trying to zip a back zipper into place."2

Donna Karan
Gift of Mary Dubrow

Like Claire McCardell, Donna Karan's reputation is founded on the design of comfortable, easy-wearing, elegant womenswear. Karan's first solo collection in 1985 (after working as head designer for Anne Klein) was built around what Karan called "seven easy pieces."3 Coordinating knit separates, these garments were designed to take a woman through work, evening and into the weekend with style and ease. Making it even easier for a women to complete the look, Karan also designed accessories needed to complete the wardrobe, including belts, bags and jewelry.

The foundation of this minimalist wardrobe was a bodysuit, an innovation which emerged from Karan's own lifestyle. During the mid-1980s, the designer apparently spent much of her at-home time in leotards, adding a skirt and scarf when going out. The resulting style was feminine, yet easy-wearing and sophisticated. In translating this at-home look into business appropriate attire, Karan offered an alternative to the masculine-inspired professional woman's wardrobe of the mid-1980s. Her introduction of seven easy pieces profoundly altered the way that women dressed both in and out of the workplace.

Simple yet sophisticated, this navy wool jumpsuit embodies the versatility of Donna Karan's aesthetic. Alone, the tight fit and deep-V neckline would make for a provocative combination. Worn over a blouse and topped with a loose sweater, it could become a comfortable work ensemble. In Donna Karan's words, a jumpsuit offers "the sophistication of a dress and the simplicity of pants all wrapped into one. To me, it’s a look that delivers strength, comfort, and confidence."4


1 Lee, Sarah. American fashion: the life and lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigère. Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co.: New York, 1975. 211.
2 Quoted in Yohannan, Kohle and Nancy Wolf. Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism. Abrams Inc.: New York, 1998. 63.
3 Morris, Bernadine. "Fall Preview from 4 American Designers." New York Times 16 April 1985: C11.
4 Quoted in "Working Girl." blog.mode: addressing fashion. 11 Feb. 2008 Metropolitan Museum of Art 14 July 2011 <>


4 responses to “McCardell playsuit and a Karan jumpsuit

  1. Becky D says:

    The McCardell playsuit has such a dreamy upper silhouette. I was expecting a ball gown as I started scrolling down the photo. What a surprise to find something so short! Is that piece a skirt, skort or what? Would you wear something below or not?

  2. Rachel says:

    Playsuits are usually shorts. The pleats on this McCardell hide the bifurcated leg, so I guess you could call it a skort! In fashion periodicals and photos, playsuits are usually worn as casual shorts and are pictured in outdoorsy settings.

  3. Debbie Farthing says:

    Is there a source for finding out more about Claire McCardell’s clothes? Is there a good catalog of her designs and the different labels that were used in her clothes? I found a couple of her pieces recently and am trying to date them. One of the things I bought was a suit but the skirt and top don’t have a label, so I’m trying to find out if they are the real deal or not.

  4. Rachel says:


    The most comprehensive McCardell source on Claire McCardell is Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism by Kohle Yohannan. Good luck in your research!

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