But when McCardell graduated in 1928, she entered an industry that was still far from friendly to ambitious, creative women. Looking for work during a sweltering New York summer, she lost out on one job because the man doing the hiring, she wrote home, “didn’t think I could work like a dog during this hot weather … and keep my clothes spruced up working from 9 to 5. He wanted someone to look like Park Avenue and work like Mott Street for nothing.” She took on a series of unsatisfying, low-paying jobs, all the while keeping an eye out for a job in which “I don’t have to do any of this designer stealing.”
In 1929, Emmett Joyce, the owner of a made-to-order salon on Fifth Avenue, hired McCardell to scour New York boutiques for designs he could copy for rich clients. “I hated this,” she later wrote for a speech, “and often came back with collections of my own ideas, which I presented to my boss as rare finds from Bergdorf Goodman.” Joyce fired her after eight months, with the parting shot that she’d never understand design.
McCardell debated returning home to Frederick, but a friend encouraged her to meet with a sportswear designer named Robert Turk. Turk hired her as a general assistant and gave her tasks from modeling to sewing to shopping for buttons. By 1932, he was the lead designer at Townley Frocks, with McCardell at his side. That spring, with the latest collection nearly complete, Turk took a trip over Memorial Day weekend and drowned in a boating accident. Henry Geiss, with little option, turned to McCardell. “She was just a girl,” Bessie Sustersic, who would remain McCardell’s assistant throughout her career, told Sally Kirkland. Sustersic remembered McCardell coming to work wearing a long braid down her back and seeming quite young and vulnerable. “Things looked very black,” McCardell later said in a speech about Turk’s death, but the men and women in the Townley workroom rallied to her side, and McCardell, grief-stricken, finished the season. At 27 years old, she became Townley’s head designer.
McCardell’s early tenure at Townley was marked by frequent blowups with Geiss, a man Time magazine once described as “a harassed veteran of Seventh Avenue’s fashion campaigns.” Geiss wanted her to copy Paris, or at least stick with classic styles. McCardell resisted. She loathed the popularity of shoulder pads, which were said to give women the illusion of thinner-looking waists. She found them fussy and refused to use them; Geiss ordered them sewn into the clothes anyway. McCardell would sometimes return to her apartment in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood feeling defeated. “I’ll never be a good designer,” she confided to Orrick, according to one news report. Nonetheless, she kept making clothes for herself, using a dress form in her apartment that she had purchased.
By 1934, McCardell had wearied of lugging trunks of clothes on her semiannual trips to Paris, so she conceived of five interchangeable pieces of clothing that were easy to pack, and to mix and match. The concept of separates, now a foundation of American fashion, was ahead of its time. Geiss, who was reported to be “in a constant state of alarm” over his designer’s ideas, risked showing the separates to a few buyers, and they balked. Adolph Klein, who later became a partner at Townley, referred to McCardell’s clothes as “some damned weird stuff.” He once told a reporter: “With these dames you don’t know where they get their inspiration. It may be from the crack in the wall.”
Meanwhile, the New York fashion media was catching on to McCardell’s damned weird stuff. In February 1937, a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily spotted her leaving Grand Central Terminal for a ski trip wearing a long hooded cape over dark trousers. McCardell, Women’s Wear Daily later noted, had “ferretted out in Paris a French peasant’s navy, woolen hooded cape that swept around her ankles” and now she had “brought it home to wear over her ski clothes.” The article marveled at how McCardell “leaps a year or so ahead of the design trend and never hesitates to wear the most extreme costumes she has turned out.”
Two months later, McCardell sailed on the SS Normandie to see the latest fashions in Paris. She stayed at the Ritz hotel at Place Vendome, and she moved about the city clad in a wardrobe that Women’s Wear Daily said “reflects her adventurous approach to new ideas.” She dressed her lithe 5-foot-7 frame in a confident mix of high and low fashion embellished with minimal but effective accessories. She rarely wore high heels, preferring flats, and she wore little makeup, save a swipe of silvery eye shadow above her hazel eyes.
While the fashion industry gathered in Paris for the new collections, McCardell often went on jaunts to other countries during these trips — mining the museums, the street life and the flea markets of cities for fresh ideas. Perhaps it was during one such excursion that she saw the traditional Algerian dress that would inspire a costume she created for a Beaux Arts Ball later in 1937. Back in New York, McCardell mimicked the style — a tentlike, bias-cut dress that fell straight from the shoulders — using colorful cotton. She later wrote that she “liked the way the big folds of cloth fell when you put a belt around it,” and after the party McCardell imagined “a simple woolen dress along the same lines with a wide leather belt.” She sewed a version in red slubbed wool — and on an August day the following year, McCardell wore that dress to work.