Tag Archives: Chicago

Marshall Field & Co, Chicago (aka Macy’s)

When visiting a new place, I’m always interested in the history of fashion retail in that town or city. In so many ways, in Chicago this is epitomized by Marshall Field’s, a long established department store located in the heart of the old shopping district of State Street inside the Loop. To sum up a lot of history, the store that became Marshall Field’s was started in 1852 by Chicago big-wig Potter Palmer. Field became involved in a partnership in the store in 1865.

In 1868 the renamed Field, Leiter, and Co. moved to where the store is now located on State Street. But this is not the same building, which was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As the city rebuilt, so did Field and Leiter. In 1881, Field bought out Leiter, and Marshall Field and Co. was officially born. A series of building additions ensued, and in 1907 the store as it exists today was pretty much finished.

Over time, Marshall Field became a Chicago institution, so much so that in 2005 when the store was bought by Macy’s there was a big protest. Fortunately, much of the interior was left intact so that visitors to the store today can get a good idea of the grandeur in which people shopped in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

The store has two large open areas, and one of them has a favrile glass mosaic vaulted ceiling decorated by Tiffany. It’s worth taking a stroll into the building just to see it.

Today, of course, the shopping experience is just not the same with the bright florescent lighting and the same Macy’s merchandise available across the country. Still, if one uses their imagination…

The Chicago History Museum has a display on Marshall Field & Company, which was a fashion leader in the city.

One block down State Street is the site of another great Chicago department store – Carson, Pirie, Scott. As you can see, today the lower floors are a Target, but the beautiful ironwork in the Louis Sullivan designed building still amazes anyone who takes the time to stop and really look at it.

As I was thinking about the grand old department stores and their disappearance from American retail, I turned to Jan Whitaker’s book on the subject, Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class. Rereading the first few chapters reminded me that while we mourn the demise of stores like Marshall Field and Wanamaker’s and Rich’s, when the department stores took over one hundred or so years ago, people were mourning the loss of the little private owner specialty store. And interestingly enough, it looks like today’s retail beasts – Walmart, Target, Costco, and the like – will soon be at the mercy of Amazon as it moves into the grocery and brick and mortar business. Will we have the same nostalgia for the big box chain store?

As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

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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.

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Benjamin B. Green-Field, or Chicago’s Bes-Ben

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Chicago this spring was to see the Mainbocher exhibition (more about that later) at the Chicago History Museum. I had a feeling that there would be more of interest there than that exhibition, and I  was not disappointed. I was delighted to see that the fashion gallery was named for Chicago milliner Benjamin Green-Field, who worked under the label, Bes-Ben.

Benjamin and his sister Bessie, (get it? Bes, Ben.) opened a millinery shop in Chicago in 1919. The business was successful, and by the late 1920s there were five Bes-Ben shops in Chicago.  In 1939 Bessie got married and left the business. As WWII loomed, Benjamin had to get creative as materials began to get scarce and were eventually rationed. He began to incorporate non-traditional millinery materials into his designs. Everything from toy animals to playing cards became a part of a Bes-Ben hat.  Women loved them.

The Bes-Ben material is scattered around the galleries, but it’s not hard to recognize it when you see it.  This hat was designed in 1957 to celebrate the opening of an exhibition in Chicago of the work of Pablo Picasso.

In an area devoted to the industries and stores of Chicago, I found this display of five Bes-Ben hats.

“Women’s hat, black velvet with chenille bees, early 1960s”

Top: “Navy straw with applique butterflies, 1956”

Bottom: “Grey wool with floral embroidery, 1960s”

“Woman’s hat, black linen with embroidery and mirrors, 1958”

Bes-Ben hats did not come cheap, but at the end of each season all remaining hats were put on sale for five dollars each. The only catch was that you had to be outside the store at 2 am the day of the sale, when the hats were thrown out of the window.  Lucky catchers of hats paid their $5 and went home with a real prize!

Not only were his hats whimsical, Green-Field himself was a bit of a character. He wore this suit in the 1970s.

Today, Bes-Ben hats are highly collectible – the crazier the design, the higher the price tag.

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Marshall Field Sweater, c. 1927

It  was in the paper today about how many people in Chicago just cannot bring themselves to shop at Macy’s this Christmas.  The demise of the Marshall Field name is just too painful.  I never had the pleasure of shopping at Marshall Field, but as a child I loved the big department stores in Asheville, and the huge Rich’s in downtown Atlanta, and I can see how a store can be so important to a community.  It’s bad enough that the malls across America are all alike, and now the department stores are too.

But there was a time when shopping in a big downtown department store was an event, something to be planned and dressed for.  Department stores held special events that really brought in the holiday shoppers, and these events became treasured traditions.

All these thoughts were brought about by a sweater with, you guessed it, a Marshall Field label.  I’ve had this sweater so long that I cannot tell you where I found it.   I knew it was old, but then I found its first cousin in a 1927 mail order catalogue.  And I’ve seen photos a little older than that with men tennis players wearing similar sweaters.  I just love finding the almost same item in a primary resource!

Posted by Liebemarlene:

That sweater is one of the best I’ve seen. As a Chicagoan I can say that I definitely miss Marshall Fields. It had an old-fashioned feel to it; at least I can still find vintage clothing in the thrift stores with the old Marshall Fields labels in them.

Tuesday, January 9th 2007 @ 11:48 PM


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Filed under Shopping, Sportswear, Vintage Clothing