If her recent biographers have it right, Wallis Warfield Simpson applied the skills she learned in a Hong Kong brothel to Edward VIII’s impotence, back in the 1930s, and thereby got him to give up the British throne and marry her. Then she needed a special dress for the occasion. She turned to Mainbocher, the most exclusive couturier in Paris. No one could turn a great lay into a great lady like this former Marshall High School baseball team water boy.
Main Rousseau Bocher was born in Chicago in 1890. He grew up in his family’s home on Monroe Street, a diminutive, handsome fellow who attended the University of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, then studied art and music in New York and Europe. During World War I, he returned to Europe with an ambulance crew, staying on in Paris after the war to pursue his dream of a career in grand opera. When his voice disappeared in the middle of a critical audition, he had to look for a new line of work. The Paris bureau of Harper’s Bazaar took him on as a fashion illustrator; a year later, he was hired by Vogue and was rapidly promoted to editor of the French edition.
This was one of the fashion world’s most influential jobs, and Bocher did it well, turning the magazine into an arbiter–rather than just an observer–of style and making dramatic use of the new partnership of fashion and photography. But in 1929, after six years at Vogue, he suddenly resigned. He wanted to set up his own house of couture in Paris–something no American had yet been able to pull off. He found backers, rented space, ran his first and last names together, and gave them a French twist: Voila, “Monboshay.”
After years of reporting on the fashion houses, Mainbocher had definite ideas about how to run one. Above all, he understood the cachet of exclusivity. He accepted customers only by referral, and he was the first designer to demand a purchase as the price of admission to his showings (the minimum ante was the cost of his least expensive dress, about $350). None of his clothes would be mass-produced or sold anywhere but at his own establishment; to make things hard for copiers, he instructed his models to speed-walk the salon and snubbed all but an elite handful of the fashion press. Even so, his elegant, understated designs were widely imitated, particularly after the slender, jacketed, pale blue silk crepe he made for Mrs. Simpson’s wedding to the king became the most photographed dress in the world.
During the 30s and 40s Mainbocher created the classic styles our mothers and grandmothers spent their happiest days in: the strapless evening gown, the little black dress, the dressy beaded cardigan sweater (inspired by wartime fuel rationing), the superbly tailored suit. In the late 30s, years before Dior’s “New Look,” he introduced evening wear with a cinched waist that presaged the exaggerated silhouette of the 50s.
With the advent of World War II, Mainbocher closed his Paris salon and moved to New York, opening on Fifth Avenue in 1940. His clientele was America’s version of aristocracy–moneyed socialites like Babe Paley and Gloria Vanderbilt. (And Sharon Percy, daughter of Senator Chuck, who married John D. Rockefeller IV in a Mainbocher in 1967.)
In America, as in Paris, Mainbocher refused to design ready-to-wear for the mass market, though it was clearly where the future of the fashion business lay. So it’s a nice little paradox that he probably outfitted more Americans than any other couturier: When the U.S. Navy decided to elevate its women from Yeomanettes to WAVES, during WWII, Mainbocher was asked to design their wardrobe. He did it as a public service, creating the fitted jacket and six-gore skirt that instantly boosted Navy recruitment and is still the WAVES’ dress uniform. After that, he designed for women in the Marines and the Red Cross and, closer to home, student nurses at Passavant Hospital. In 1948 he redesigned the uniform for the Girl Scouts.
Mainbocher retired in 1971 and died five years later, but a sampling of his work is on display in “Uniformly Feminine,” a costume exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society running through April 4. The show includes a half dozen evening gowns, the wonderful WAVE ensemble, and the front-buttoned, pea green number with the yellow kerchief you may have worn yourself, in the old days, before we suspected the Duchess of Windsor wasn’t exactly a Girl Scout.
The Chicago Historical Society, at Clark Street and North Avenue, is open 9:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, 12 to 5 Sunday. Suggested admission is $3 for adults, less for students, seniors and children. Mondays are free. Call 642-4600 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Karen Radlai, Hoyningen-Huene.