BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
From the “Wallis blue” wedding dress of the Duchess of Windsor to the crisp nurses uniforms done as a favor to a Chicago socialite, Mainbocher commanded fashion headlines throughout his six-decade career. The Chicago History Museum opens its stunning exhibition “Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier” on October 22 featuring thirty pieces donated by some of Chicago’s most fashionable women.
Main Rousseau Bocher was born on Chicago’s west side in 1890, graduating from John Marshall High School before heading to Paris. He fused his name, in honor of two French couturiers who had done the same, and founded a fashion house on the Avenue George V in l929. In 1940, he opened his American fashion house next to Tiffany & Co. in New York. By 1947, eight of the ten women on the International Best Dressed List were his clients.
Credited with the corseted waist and the strapless dress, his clients ranged from debutante Brenda Frazier to actress Ethel Merman, whom he dressed for Call Me Madam, and socialites Bunny Mellon, C.Z. Guest, Babe Paley, and Mrs. Cole Porter to name but a few.
Mainbocher fascinates Petra Sinkard, the History Museum’s Curator of Costumes:
“There is a strong fashion component at the core of the story, but there are so many other aspects of his life which will attract not only fashion enthusiasts. Through two world wars, technological advances, the fashion press—he survived it all. He was very smart, driven, meticulous, and had a lot of street smarts. He was a great businessman who knew how to formulate his public persona while remaining intensely private.”
Although he left Chicago at 19, he returned frequently for business and lectured at the Fashion Group in the 1940s. Mainbocher returned to his alma mater, John Marshall High School, frequently to talk with students and tried always to fit in a Lyric Opera performance.
His friendships with many of the international celebrities who were his clients, including Lady Mendel, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Wallace Simpson were widely known.
In her research for the exhibition Petra discovered:
“The Duchess of Windsor was, of course, a client like any other, but the Metropolitan Museum has copies of personal notes she sent to him, including a thank you for a donation to her foundation and several Christmas cards they exchanged. He had many Chicago friends including Mrs. James Ward Thorne for whom he designed Passavant Hospital’s nurses uniforms in 1949.”
Accessories such as jewelry and gloves are presented for the first time in a Chicago History Museum fashion exhibition. The show features the donations of Mrs. Katherine Field; Mrs. Dorothy H. Rautbord; Miss Peggy Stanley; Mrs. Clive Runnells; brothers John and Clive Runnells, in honor of their mother; Mrs. Charles W. Bryan, Jr., in honor of Mrs. Worth Faulkner; Mrs. Myron Radcliffe; Mrs. Margaret Heing Abramson; Mrs. Jo Hopkins Deutsch; Mrs. Stephen L. Ingersoll; Mrs. A. Watson Armour III; and the designer himself.
On Friday, October 21, the Costume Council will present the exhibition’s opening gala, worthy of the elegance of Mainbocher. Kristin Noelle Smith serves as Costume Council Chair and benefit co-chairs are Nancy Connelley, Marci Holzer, and Mary Shearson. Chicago’s chicest will have a preview tour of the exhibition, hear remarks by Petra Slinkard and enjoy dinner and dancing at the Museum.
In addition to uniforms for the Girl Scouts and the Passavant Hospital nurses, Mainbocher was asked to outfit the WAVES (the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve) during World War II. With this in mind, the History Museum has scheduled two upcoming events honoring Mainbocher’s own war service and the uniforms he designed: a USO dance October 24 and a Veteran’s Day presentation November 11, free to veterans and their families.
We asked Sinkard to tell us about Mainbocher leading up to the exhibition:
You have described Mainbocher as a minimalist.
What makes his designs amazing is that they are so simple. The simplest garments are the easiest to wear but the hardest to design. It is easy to write off a simple gown with less gadgets, petticoats, boning, and other infrastructure than others you might see from that time. When you open the boxes in which his dresses are stored, they don’t look all that special. When you put them on the mannequins they are stunning.
How do you bring the collection together for maximum impact for the viewers?
It took a six-person team composed of our graphic and artistic designers, our education director, our editor, and the directors of exhibition and curatorial. We started with the heart of the story, his incredible designs, and how to conceptualize the experience for our viewers.
Guests have seen our long and stylized mannequins in past shows. We decided this time to go that extra step and accessorize—with wigs, gloves, and jewels they are now complete. There are a multitude of factors to consider as you tell the story, from square footage and where the doors are to the overall design of the gallery and the background colors we use.
What was his philosophy of color?
His palette was often subdued, with beige, champagne, pewter, dusty rose, and celadon. We do have two fire-engine red dresses in the show, one in satin and one in velvet, as well as two true navy dresses. In the 1960s, he began to use bright, vibrant colors.
You are the third Curator of Costumes at the Chicago History Museum. How did your passion for fashion begin?
Growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, I was always inspired by my grandmother, who had once worked at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and knew about proper dressing. She and my mother were very strong women who used fashion in their own ways. I devoured fashion magazines and although I don’t have time now, I have designed clothing in the past.
Do you have favorite designers?
I have always loved the classic, clean lines of Norman Norell and Halston, more recently Tom Ford for Gucci, and designers who shake things up a bit like Mugler, Gaultier, and Moschino. I have always known and admired Mainbocher.
At 81, Mainbocher closed his New York fashion house in 1971 and died five years later. The fashion world lost its first French-American designer of international fame and the WAVES, nurses, and girl scouts lost a friend who cared deeply about their work.
Christian Dior spoke for other fashion geniuses when he said: “Mainbocher is really in advance of us all, because he does it in America.”
“Making Mainbocher: the First American Couturier” opens at the Chicago History Museum on October 22. Read more about the exhibit and the additional talks and programs for veterans at www.chicagohistorymuseum.org.