"Making Mainbocher" Review- An Exhibit of the First American Couturier at The Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark Street, a 2016 recipient of The National Medal for Museum and Library Service, and known for it’s significant achievements in community engagement, has just opened a strikingly original and beautifully set show entitled “Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier”. The museum owns an extensive collection of costumes and the vast majority of the 30 displayed works of the dressmaker’s art belong to the museum; 2 were gifts of Mainbocher himself, and many of the rest gifts of recognizable Chicago society women such as Mrs. Watson Armour and Peggy Stanley.

The Exhibition opens; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer

The gowns and uniforms- Mainbocher designed costumes for the theater, for girl scouts and the Waves as well as society women’s wear- are displayed in open groupings on raised pedestals. These are interspersed with items about and reflecting his life, from report cards to examples of his illustrations and photographs of him and the people in his world. The groups correspond to the growth and development of his “look”.

Mainbocher, Inc.; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer


Also, the exhibition is replete with interactive installations- this reviewer created her own brand/logo, designed a fanciful shift dress reminiscent of Pucci and listened to Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt ‘s recorded dulcet tones describing her relationship with the vendeuse (saleswoman) at the House of Mainbocher, as well as her thoughts about the feeling of the clothes. Mainbocher designed for "royalty, Hollywood and the social elite" and the exhibition showcases his life and legacy as the first truly American couturier of note.

Mainbocher with Noel Coward; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer


Born in 1890 in E. Garfield Park on the West side of Chicago, Main Rousseau Bocher went to John Marshall High School, and attended The Lewis Institute and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He worked in the complaint department at Sears before travelling to Paris where he enlisted in the Army to fight in World War 1. He was multitalented, always an artist. He played the piano and illustrated books before working at Harper's Bazaar as a fashion illustrator. From there, he became editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris before launching his House (Mainbocher Couture) in 1929. He opened an atelier in Paris on Avenue George V in 1930 which he ran until the press of the Nazis sent him back to the United States where he opened his American salon next to Tiffany’s on 57th Street in New York. He was the first haute couturier to relocate from Paris to New York. 

Range of Work; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer


He rose to worldwide fame among the cognoscenti when Wallis Warfield Simpson, “the woman I love”, famously wore a gown of his creation to her 1937 wedding to the former King Edward V111- he also designed the fabulous trousseau- afterwards, of course, the two were known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Today, the wedding dress and other pieces he created for her, some in a colour he named “Wallis blue" are housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The Workshop; photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum


No need for a necklace; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer

Mainbocher is credited with changing the silhouette of fashion; eschewing the loose “flapper” dresses of the 1920”s, he introduced a corset that created a wasp-waisted, high-bosomed look, immortalized in a famous image by “THE” society photographer of the period, Horst, known as “the Mainbocher corset.” From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, in an era of elegance and propriety, Mainbocher embodied a sense of effortless design and charm. Most of the collection shown at the museum consists of exquisite gowns, mostly in subdued “natural” colors; although the hues may have faded with age, the fabrics are so rich they have done so evenly.

Bodice; photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum

The bodice work on these one-of-a-kind dresses, often oversewn with extensive brilliants and beading is glorious. There are strapless and one-shoulder creations- another novelty introduced by Mainbocher, which are a masterpiece of construction, crossed, wrapped, ruched, pleated, and always uplifted. The backs of the gowns are very simple, although some contain ruffles and bows. The pieces are notable for their extreme femininity and aura of “cool” and demure simplicity. One can see how these clothes would help their owner feel confident and exude that confidence: there is nothing extreme or obvious. Even one very unusual striking harleqinesque two-toned gown managed to achieve a look of calm serenity rather than dash or daring. Some of the gowns came with costume jewellery that echoed the embellishments.

Mainbocher; photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum

The exhibition is remarkable for the scope of its focus. It takes one on a journey through the man’s life and art, showing us the sad demise of his House in 1971 and yet ending with a huge photo of a very contented looking Mainbocher in a beret. The impression is of a man who, largely untaught, helped to create an ambience and a symbol of purity and of sophisticated luxury that set the standard for American designers who have followed after.

Evening Gown; photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum

For more information on this and the other wonderful exhibets at The Chicago History Museum, or to purchase tickets, go to the Chicago History Museum website


Mainbocher in later years; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer




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