Tulle evening dress with shell trim, fall 1946 Credit: Courtesy Chicago History Museum

A Chicago-born army vet and illustrator with modest beginnings ventures into the exclusive world of French haute couture and becomes the very first American couturier to achieve success in Paris. That’s the story told by “Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier,” which opens tomorrow at the Chicago History Museum. The exhibit features 30 of his garments, plus fashion illustrations, photographs, and interactive displays.

After a stint in the U.S. Army, Main Rousseau Bocher  (1890–1976) landed in Paris, where was hired as a fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar. He eventually became the editor in chief of French Vogue, and from there decided to launch his own couture salon in 1930, a bold move considering the uncertain economic climate of those times. One of his most famous clients was Wallis Simpson, whose wedding gown he designed.

Learn more about Mainbocher below in a Chicago History Museum video and in a Q&A with the museum’s costume curator, Petra Slinkard.

Red velvet ballgown with accessories, fall 1947
Red velvet ballgown with accessories, fall 1947Credit: Courtesy Chicago History Museum

What were Mainbocher’s best years as a designer?

That is a difficult question. He was a prolific designer who worked as a couturier from 1930-1971. However, his most innovative years as a designer were the 1930s and 1940s.

How did he begin his career? Where did his learn his craft?
Mainbocher’s career as a couturier began in Paris. He learned about what constitutes “good fashion” from his years working as a fashion artist for Harper’s Bazaar and fashion editor with French Vogue. When he left Vogue to open his house, he taught himself the art of draping and dressmaking.

How did he grow to be a world-class couturier having come from such a modest family? How hard was it to be a couturier then?
I believe that it was Mainbocher’s upbringing that helped enable him to achieve the level of success he did. Not having come from a wealthy family meant he had to work hard for everything he achieved and he needed to be smart and flexible in achieving his goals. Becoming a couturier requires a great amount of skill and creative talent. Haute couture is a complex system of industry standards and social mores. What is most impressive about Mainbocher’s path is that he was an American working in the French system and then went on to adhere to the same process in the United States later.

What characterized his designs?
Simplicity, elegance, minimalism, restrained ornamentation, luxurious fabrics.

Who were some of his most famous clients?
Mrs. Huntington Astor, Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. Edward F. Hutton, Mrs. Gilbert Miller, Mrs. David K.E. Bruce, Mrs. James B. Duke, and Mrs. Barclay Warburton.* In addition to Gloria Vanderbilt, Jean Harvey Vanderbilt, C. Z. Guest, Mary Martin, “Babe” Paley, Millicent Rodgers, Mrs. A. Watson Armour III, the women of the United States Navy, and the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Could you tell us more about the wedding dress he designed for the Duchess of Windsor in 1937?
It is housed in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can learn more about it here

Considering he created uniforms for the Navy WAVES during World War II, the Girl Scouts, and nursing students at Chicago’s Passavant Memorial, is it fair to say he was one of the first high-end designers to make his creations accessible to a wider segment of the population? 
No. But he was one of the first high-end designers to embark on a uniform design that experienced as much use and longevity than most others in the field.

WAVES uniform, United States Naval Reserve, c. 1942
WAVES uniform, United States Naval Reserve, c. 1942Credit: Courtesy Chicago History Museum

What is Mainbocher most known for? 
Mainbocher was known for the understated elegance of his couture clothing. Among his innovations were short evening dresses, jeweled sweaters, and a revival of the corset that anticipated Dior’s New Look.
How can his influence be seen nowadays?
I think some of Mainbocher’s influences are so far-reaching we forget from where they came. For example the beaded cardigan and strapless gown have become fashion staples.

Why did the Chicago History Museum decide to open “Mainbocher: The First American Couturier” at this point in time?
The Chicago History Museum’s mission is to share Chicago’s stories. Mainbocher’s biography had not yet been told through an exhibition and so it seemed like a good fit for us at this time. His story is multifaceted and in my opinion, fascinating. I’m thrilled that we get to share it with them now.

So the very first American couturier was born in Chicago? No other American came before him?
There were other American couturiers working at the same time as Mainbocher, mainly Charles James and Valentina. But Mainbocher was the first American to achieve success as a couturier working in Paris in the 1930s. And yes, he was born and raised in Chicago.

Has the Mainbocher brand been resurrected? 
The brand has not yet been resurrected, but it is a great question, as the owner of the Mainbocher brand [Paris-based entrepreneur Arnaud de Lummen of Luvanis] will be at the Museum on Saturday, October 22, to discuss the pros and cons of resurrecting “sleeping beauty” brands such as Mainbocher. The talk begins at 10:30 AM and is free with museum admission.

“Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier” 10/22-8/2017, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org, $16.

* Correction: This post has been amended to correctly reflect the names of Mainbocher’s best-known clients as identified by exhibit curator Petra Slinkard. Several of those mentioned used their husband’s names, hence were distinguished simply by the title “Mrs.,” which has now been supplied.