Making Mainbocher

Chicago History Museum

The First American Couturier

Born in Chicago in 1890, Main Rousseau Bocher was an unlikely man to become a couturier. When he opened his Paris salon in 1930, he had very little formal training. Despite being an American working in the tightly guarded tradition of French couture, by 1931 his designs were presented in the fashion press alongside those by Vionnet, Molyneux, and Chanel.

Mainbocher quickly earned a reputation for creating simple, classic, and seemingly effortless clothing. This two-tiered style from 1937 was one of his favorite silhouettes.

By the late 1930s, Mainbocher introduced cloth evening coats to wear instead of furs. This coat foreshadowed later designs for suits and uniforms.

Upon opening his salon, Main Bocher combined his first and last names to form a more sophisticated and French-sounding name for his company, Mainbocher.

In 1937, Mainbocher acquired his most famous client: Wallis Simpson. She was the twice-divorced American socialite whom King Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne to marry. Mainbocher, Chanel, and Schiaparelli were among designers to submit wedding dress sketches for Simpson's consideration. Mainbocher's design was selected and instantly became iconic. Though he immediately destroyed the pattern, the duchess's wedding dress became one of the most copied dresses of all time.

In addition to her wedding dress, Simpson wore Mainbocher regularly. Other clients of the house requested copies of the designs she favored, such as this wool suit. However, this ensemble from 1937 has a brown and white blouse and handkerchief, while the duchess’s were blue and white.

Shortly after the United States’ entry into World War II, the four branches of the military established women’s auxiliaries. The first official women’s branch of the US Navy, called the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), were stationed stateside so that more American men could serve overseas.

Mainbocher was commissioned to design the WAVES uniforms; a task that reasserted his patriotism and American identity after living and working in Paris since 1917.

As a designer of couture garments for the wealthiest of women, Mainbocher knew how to use cuts and seams to create a clean, balanced, and flattering uniform. He issued three versions of the WAVES ensemble—blue, white, and seersucker—basing his designs on traditional men’s uniforms, complete with official buttons, insignia, and ties. Designs like these were a first for women in the service. In January 1943, the New York Times Magazine declared, “The ‘best dressed women of the year’ are the women who are wearing uniforms.”

World War II forced Mainbocher to relocate his atelier from Paris to New York. One of his challenges in the early 1940s was to secure a place in the American fashion industry and stand out in a country that did not readily embrace haute couture. 

During World War II and in its aftermath, he repeatedly revisited silhouettes he had used in the past, updating his looks with restrained embellishments.

A prime example of the sophistication and glamour of Mainbocher's evening wear, this 1944 dress features small jewels, beads, and sequins stitched directly to the neckline, giving the illusion of a necklace.

Keeping the traditions and formal operations of a French salon, appointments were issued by invitation and introduction only. Mainbocher worked with each client to create completely custom designs that best suited her.

He made an earlier version of this dress in yellow, but the client, Mrs. A. Watson Armour III, selected it in a pale gray-green.

Mainbocher frequently added embellishments to his clothing so little to no jewelry would be required.

Like in this 1945 dress, Mainbocher's use of beading added an air of sophistication to more modest and casual garments.

Unlike other couturiers, Mainbocher designed every item himself, at times even cutting the fabric. While his contemporaries embraced the postwar ready-to-wear market, he refused to mass produce or license his brand. Instead, Mainbocher continued to work in the couture tradition.

Mainbocher's elegant designs are often very simple at first glance. Speaking about the importance of "What you don't do with a dress," he said "Too many gadgets can spoil the dress, just as surely as too many cooks, the broth."

During World War II, the United States government applied restrictions on the types and amounts of fabrics that could be used in clothing manufacturing. Fashion designers adapted their designs accordingly.

In response, Mainbocher created a collection of interchangeable "dress aprons," which were worn over simple cocktail or evening dresses to update the existing look. He used this concept later by integrating aprons into his designs, as seen with this garment from 1947.

Mainbocher introduced the strapless silhouette as part of his collections as early as 1934. By the 1940s, he was regularly using it in his evening wear and by the 1950s, this particular silhouette had become a fashion staple.

Mainbocher reintroduced an hourglass silhouette in the late 1930s, but the style did not take hold until Christian Dior’s now-famous first collection in 1947.

In this 1949 dress, Mainbocher fused an austere military look, likely inspired by his styling for the US Navy, with that of the feminine “New Look.”

Mainbocher experienced unprecedented success as an American couturier in Paris. A prism of ambition, precision, and sophistication shaped his work, making Mainbocher the “most American of the French labels” and the “most French of the American labels.” 

Once again looking to his past work for inspiration, Mainbocher revisits the strapless silhouette to create this 1951 dress. Its skirt is created with four panels of silk, each a different color to give a color-changing effect when put into motion.

In addition to evening and cocktail dresses, Mainbocher specialized in smart, well-tailored suits, constructed of men’s suiting fabrics. 

Eleven clients purchased a version of this suit at the time of creation in 1958.

One of Mainbocher’s most notable styles was the short evening dress. To elevate its elegance, he adorned this 1954 design with sequined flowers and skillfully crafted the belt so as not to disrupt the meandering floral pattern.

Mainbocher had no interest in creating fussy or over-the-top clothing. He designed what he wanted, when he wanted, for whom he wanted. The 1960s saw hemlines rise and fall, Mainbocher designed this dress from 1966 in spite of both. Paired with a matching stole, a slit in the long overskirt reveals a shorter underdress.

Credits: Story

"Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier" is presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum.

Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:

Rosemary K. Adams – Director of Print & Multimedia Publications
Petra Slinkard – Costume Curator
Samuel Snodgrass – Costume Intern
Julius L. Jones – Digital Content Manager
Jessica Pushor – Collection Manager

The exhibition "Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier" was on display at the Chicago History Museum from October 22, 2016 to August 20, 2017.

Curator – Petra Slinkard
Designer – Daniel Oliver
Editor – Emily H. Nordstrom
Educator – Ilana Bruton
Graphic Designer – Mark Ramirez

Collection Manager – Jessica Pushor
Conservators – Holly Lundberg, Nancy Buenger
Costume Preparators – Emma Denny, Michael Hall
Wigmakers – Jane Bagnall, Hannah Bledstein
Production Supervisor – Calvin Gray
Exhibition Production – Dean Avery, Beal Stafford, Elke Claus
Registrar – Julie Katz
Photographers – Joseph Aaron Campbell, Stephen J. Jensen
AV Technology Manager – Ben Minnis
Social Media – Esther D. Wang, Cydney Stasiulis
Marketing – Laura Cusick, Emily Osborne, Tara-Jeanne Kosloski
Volunteer Training – Marne Bariso
Institutional Advancement – Michael Anderson, lshan Johnson,
Anthony Amettis
Video Production – Zero One Projects
Interactive Production – Ml Interactive (The Name Game); George Berlin (Design a Dress)

Director of Curatorial Affairs – Joy L. Bivins
Director of Exhibitions – Tamara K. Biggs
Andrew W. Mellon Director of Collections – M. Alison Eisendrath
Director of Print and Multimedia Publications –  Rosemary K. Adams
Elizabeth F. Cheney Director of Education – Nancy Villafranca-Guzman

Volunteers and Interns – Joshua Anderson, Cori Azem, Kristin Bernstein, Grace Carroll, Sue Reif Gill, Sierra Holt, Fredi Leaf, Michelle McVicker, Mia Mehta, Jacqueline Novak, Molly Rindfuss

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.