Groundbreaking fashion designer gets acclaim, again

Debra Scala-Giokas features Claire McCardell in children’s books

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Debra Scala-Giokas features Claire McCardell in children’s books

By LINDA LEUZZI

If ballet flats and coordinated separates are your thing, thank Claire McCardell, the visionary designer who made it possible for women to dress that way in comfortable, stylish, affordable clothes. Utilizing large pockets, denim fabric, calico, corduroy, trousers and wrap dresses, her designs thrived, especially during the 1940s, when luxurious fabrics and clothing devices like zippers were hard to come by due to World War II rationing. What emerged from McCardell was the “American Look”; the young designer was smack in the middle of a country experiencing feminine athleticism and women streaming into the workforce, and she reflected the era in her fashions. In 1932, at age 27, she had already become head designer of Townley Frocks and was a hit well into the 1950s. (McCardell died in 1958 from colon cancer.)

While McCardell influenced many well-known designers in the current fashion world, outside those circles, she’s relatively unknown. Sayville resident Debra Scala-Giokas is hoping to change that with her children’s books, “Claire: The Little Girl Who Climbed to the Top and Changed the Way Women Dress,” and its companion, “Claire’s Closet: A Coloring Book.” Scala-Giokas collaborated with illustrator Mary Ryan Reeves on both books.

The McCardell books couldn’t debut at a better time. The Frederick Art Club, located in Frederick, Md., where McCardell grew up, is about to unveil a larger-than-life bronze statue of McCardell on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. Scala-Giokas tapped them in her research forays.

“There was a 2018 New York Times article about the exhibition ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion in Catholic Imagination’ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that included Claire McCardell and her monastic dress [an unstructured garment that could be self-styled with a belt or sash]. And that’s how it started,” she said. “I began really to research her. Then I came across the Frederick Art Club working on the statue of Claire McCardell, breaking the bronze ceiling, and started writing the book. Think of it. Most statues are of men.”

Scala-Giokas, a marketing director at Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman LLP, wanted to write a children’s book for years. Her author steps began in 2017 when she took some vacation time and signed up for a weeklong Stony Brook Southampton Writer’s Conference picture book writing course taught by Emma Walton Hamilton, a best-selling children’s author, editor, arts educator, and arts and literacy advocate. The challenge: Write a children’s book in 600 words or less.

“We went every day for several hours and took seminars with other writers,” she added. “Some people stay over; you talk to other writers. I came home and did the homework. It was tiring but very exhilarating, and gives you a shot of inspiration.”

But first things first.

“I spent a lot of time in the Sayville Library just reading picture books because there’s a certain format. And I wanted to just get an idea about their style and innovation. I like to write non-fiction,” explained Scala-Giokas of the process. “But you have to read so much stuff and then condense it for a kid to get them interested in it.”

Scala-Giokas also joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

But it was the New York Times article that gave Scala-Giokas her focus. And The Frederick Art Club, which connected her with Reeves, a retired art teacher.  Reeves graduated from Hood College, which McCardell attended, and sits on the Frederick Art Club committee for the McCardell statue.

McCardell learned sewing and garment construction from a family seamstress and developed a fashion sense at an early age, deconstructing her brothers’ clothing as a way to make comfortable play clothes for herself. She wanted to become a designer early on. After acquiescing to her father’s wish to attend the local Hood College, which she did for two years, he relented, and McCardell enrolled in what became Parsons School of Design to study costume illustration and construction.

“I think I had the manuscript done in 2019,” said Scala-Giokas. “It sat in my drawer for a while and then I came across the statue project and reached out. I met Mary [Ryan Reeves] through them and in July of 2020, we started; it was nine months of going back and forth by email.” Reeves incorporated famous McCardell fashions, including the kitchen dinner dress and matching apron.

The books trace how fashion has changed. Also, “Claire started cutting out pieces of magazines to mix-and-match fashions like early paper dolls; it’s featured in the books. So we have a paper doll-aspect in them,” she said.

They were published in May of 2021 via IngramSpark Self-Publishing. “I did the design and layout, and uploaded it through them.” Scala-Giokas said. “They’re distributed through Walmart and Target. When I was doing it, I was enjoying Mary’s illustrations so much.”

The books have been written up in Women’s Wear Daily and Threads.

“What intrigued me was that Claire was ahead of her time,” Scala-Giokas said.

“She had three brothers; she played with them and wanted to wear comfortable clothes. So she made her own. In the high-fashion world, everyone knows her. Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Diane von Furstenberg all credit Claire; she influenced a lot of designers. In Maryland, they know her, but not many here.”

That will change now. To order “Claire: The Little Girl Who Climbed to the Top and Changed the Way Women Dress” and its companion, “Claire’s Closet: A Coloring Book,” click on Debra Scala-Giokas’s website, www.debrascalagiokas.com. 

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