Making Mainbocher at the Chicago History Museum

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Chicago was a visit to the Chicago History Museum, and the highlight of the museum was a current exhibition, Making Mainbocher. You may know the name Mainbocher, as he was a major designer from 1930 through 1971. Though he got his start in fashion in Paris, Main Bocher (as he was originally named) was from Chicago, and the exhibition began with a look at his time in the city, and the influences the city had on his long career.

Bocher always loved the arts, and during his school days in Chicago he studied drama and music. He later started a course in illustration at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and to help make ends meet he worked at Sears, Roebuck, answering customer complaint letters, a job that later he credited with teaching him the value of good customer service.

At nineteen, Main Bocher left Chicago, and never again lived there. In the years before World War I he lived in New York, with long stretches in Europe. He had just had his first major commission as an illustrator (above) when the US entered the war. He enlisted, and remained in France until the outbreak of the next war. During the 1920s Bocher tried fashion illustration, and ended up at Harper’s Bazar as an artist. The exhibition had quite a few examples – typical 1920s illustration, all signed Main Bocher. His big break came in 1923 when he went to work for French Vogue. In 1927 he was made the editor.

But Bocher felt he had more to offer in fashion. He quit his Vogue position to open his own couture house. Unfortunately his timing was poor, as a few months after he quit, Wall Street crashed. He put the plan on hold while he scraped together the money to start the business. In 1930 he opened his salon, named it Mainbocher and Frenchied up the pronunciation. He was forty years old.

Things were slow at first, but his persistence paid off, and the business became a great success. Probably the biggest boost to Mainbocher came in 1937 when Wallis Simpson had him design her wedding dress and trousseau for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor.

The earliest clothes in the exhibition date from 1937. The dress on the left is actually two pieces, a tunic over a long dress. The coat in the middle is really beautiful. It is a wool tweedy plaid cut on the bias, and has a lovely drape. Mainbocher donated these two pieces to the Chicago History Museum in 1968.

This suit is also from 1937, and is quite special as it is one of the designs that originated with the Duchess of Windsor’s trousseau. Her version was grey with blue and white accessories.

This suit belonged to Mrs. Stephen Ingersoll of Chicago. I’m not sure it is possible for a suit to have a prettier neckline.

When it became obvious that Paris was going to fall to the Germans, Mainbocher and his partner (who was also his illustrator) Douglas Pollard, left France and settled in New York. To raise money to restart his business, Mainbocher partnered with Warner Corsets with a line of corsets. As far as I could tell, this is the only time Mainbocher did a line of any type of ready-to-wear.

The two evening dresses above (1945 and 1946) are good examples of Mainbocher’s philosophy toward embellishment. The dresses themselves had spare, elegant lines. Mainbocher added the decoration so to eliminate the need for jewelry.

This dress is from 1945, and was made for Mrs. Watson Armour III. The dress was originally designed in yellow, but Mrs. Watson requested it in grey.

One of the real strengths of the exhibition is the presence of a book of facsimiles of the original sketches and swatches. Here is the same dress in the original yellow.  Almost all the designs had the accompanying sketch, and it added so much to the show.

During WWII, the scarcity of materials forced designers to develop ways of stretching the wardrobes of their clients. Mainbocher made cocktail aprons that matched his gowns. He continued the idea with the 1947 gown on the right. He also came up with the idea of the embellished evening sweater, which went on to be a classic of the 1950s.

This 1951 ballgown rated  its own revolving pedestal. It was a good way to see how Mainbocher used four different colors of satin to make the skirt.

Mainbocher was a master of the strapless gown, which he first designed in 1934. By the late 1940s it was a big part of what he was best known for.

And while Mainbocher is best known for his ball gowns, I do believe that his suits are my favorites.  There were only a few suits in the exhibition, but they were all stunning. The original sketch shows that the applied motif on the jacket and the waist band is also in a matching off-white silk blouse. Details matter.

Possibly my favorite in the entire exhibition, this navy suit dates from 1948.

I love Mainbocher’s continued use of the self-applique. It adds detail without being obvious. This was another case where I really wanted to go up and unbutton the jacket so I could see the rest of it.

I need to see this dress as well. The bodice has an interesting criss-cross that tends to mirror the points of the lace decoration of the skirt.

In the 1960s when the fashion world was going mad, Mainbocher continued to do what he did best – making beautiful clothes for women who wanted to look sophisticated. 1964 and 1966.

In the 1940s Mainbocher did a bit of uniform design work. In 1942 he was contracted to design uniforms for the WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

I especially loved this grey and white seersucker work uniform.  It is actually a dress with jacket.

In 1948 Mainbocher redesigned uniforms for the Girl Scouts of America.

And in what is probably the chicest nurses’ uniform ever, he made this one for the student nurses at Passavant Memorial Hospital (which is now Northwestern Memorial in Chicago).

It was a beautiful exhibition, and I left feeling like I really knew what Mainbocher was about. Curator Petra Slinkard did an excellent job, and if you are in the Chicago area and have not seen this show, it is well-worth the time and effort to see it.  Closes August 20, 2017.

12 Comments

Filed under Designers, Museums

12 responses to “Making Mainbocher at the Chicago History Museum

  1. Always wanted to see in person. The movies were full of his suits and gowns. I think he made sensible/wearable/practical = beautiful!?! Very American socialite in feel. his evening dresses most always with a jacket. always very tailored and his audience paid him well for it. Didn’t he also design millinery for his collections as well – or was that his partner? Thank you for sharing this Lizzie!

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  2. that navy suit with the chain….but the 60s clothes look sad…also I loathe Wallis SImpson and her idiot husband…

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    • The 60s dresses are actually better than my photo suggests. The print dress would, in my opinion, have been better in a solid rather than that print, as the cut is so pretty, and it just gets lost. The long dress has a short underskirt, and the effect is very nice.

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  3. Maguy

    Thank you, thank you.
    A master of fashion and beautiful proportions. A real tribute to feminity I think, though I probably don’t really know what feminity really is.

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  4. Christine

    I saw this exhibit too. Lizzie, your photos and text really do it justice. I thought his tailoring was inventive and the gowns were glamorous. I also liked that he re-invented himself with a simple change to his name.

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  5. I agree with Christine–you give an outstanding overview of the exhibit. I loved the fabric swatches, too, and had fun with the interactive dress design (although not as much fun as some younger visitors.) And I also appreciated the size of the exhibit–not too overwhelming. All the fashion exhibits I have seen at the Chicago History Museum have been first rate.

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    • I loved the interactive parts of this exhibition as well. I could have played with that design your dress thing all day!

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      • And you are absolutely correct about the size of this exhibition. It really is easy to overwhelm visitors with too much material. A good example of this was the Punk show at the Met. I felt like I’d been clobbered over the head by the curator who was yelling, “See! Punk was a HUGE influence, and we’ve got the stuff to prove it!”

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  6. What a great read! I loved the great designers of that period. A golden age for sure.

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