If you haven’t yet dropped in on the Chicago History Museum’s “Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier,” you’ve got ten days (the last day to catch it is August 20) to see this exhibit about the John Marshall High School baseball-team water boy who grew up to be one of the world’s top fashion designers—back when that really meant something.
Born Main Rousseau Bocher on the west side of Chicago in 1890, this son of a Chicago dry-goods salesman designed both the single most famous dress of its time and, though he never entered the ready-to-wear market, the garments most proudly donned by masses of American women.
The famous dress was the pale-blue silk chiffon wedding ensemble worn by Wallis Warfield Simpson when she married the man who gave up the throne of England for her, after which they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Still wed to her second husband when they met in 1930, Simpson was an improbable match for the future King Edward VIII: an American divorcee without European social status, conventional beauty, or wealth. But Simpson was a supremely gifted seductress. She got to the prince by befriending the woman who was then his mistress, and the world watched in fascination as she had her way with him. Her discreetly draped slip of a bridal dress, photographed by Cecil Beaton, was splashed across newspapers and magazines everywhere.
Mainbocher had beaten out Schiaparelli and Chanel to win the assignment; as noted the last time CHM had a bunch of Mainbocher on exhibit, nobody was better at turning a great lay into a great lady (not that they were ever mutually exclusive).
By the time Edward married Wallis in 1937, Mainbocher—who’d been an art student in Chicago, an American intelligence officer in WWI, and an aspiring opera singer—was the toast of Paris. Living in France in the 1920s with his lifelong partner, Douglas Pollard, Mainbocher had risen from fashion illustrator at Harper’s Bazaar to editor in chief at French Vogue. In 1929, just months before the U.S. stock market crash and the onset of a worldwide economic collapse, he quit Vogue and, with great connections but no prior dressmaking experience, opened his own quickly sought-after Parisian house of couture. In 1940, with the advent of WWII, he returned to America and set up shop in Manhattan, where he continued his custom design business until retirement in 1971. He died in ’76.
It would be difficult now to overstate the energy and emotion attached to women’s fashion in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, when many women still sewed and few had a career outside of the home. Mainbocher’s designs were classic; his signature style, elegant understatement (“right, not chic,” he would say). But he was also an innovator, introducing strapless gowns in the 1930s, the nipped-waist years before it became Dior’s “new look,” and, during the war, practical beaded cardigans for evening wear.
His was a salon business that only the rich could afford; there were no off-the-rack Mainbochers. But during WWII he made an extraordinary exception, designing jacket-and-skirt uniforms and jaunty matching caps for the WAVES, the newly created women’s branch of the U.S. Navy. The uniforms were so smart and flattering, they turned out to be a recruiting tool. He also designed the only Mainbocher I ever wore: the green cotton belted shirtwaist and darker green wool beret of the American Girl Scouts.
The exhibit and a handsome accompanying catalog are the work of CHM’s costume curator Petra Slinkard. The uniforms are on display, along with 30 Mainbocher garments from the Chicago History Museum’s collection—mostly elegant evening gowns, but also some daywear, including a Chicago donor’s version of a suit the Duchess included in her trousseau.
“Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier,” Through 8/20: Wed-Sat 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, Sun noon-5 PM, Mon 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, Tue 9:30 AM-7:30 PM, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org, $16, $14 students and seniors, free for children 12 and younger.