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Mainbocher - An Eye for Style

Mainbocher, the first American to become a successful Paris couturier, is undoubtedly one of the unsung heroes of 20th Century fashion. Born Main Rousseau Bocher in 1890 on the west side of Chicago, Mainbocher would dress the most elegant women of his era including Mona Bismarck, Millicent Rogers, Elsie de Wolfe, Daisy Fellowes and the Duchess of Windsor, whose wedding dress he famously designed for her 1937 marriage to the former Edward VIII. Yet despite his exalted clientele (he affectionately referred to his clients as “his ladies”), Mainbocher is not remembered as well as he should be today. This may in part be due to the fact that he was notoriously private; he never advertised and most of the fashion press was excluded from his salon, often saying “the best public relations is word of mouth between two women, rather than the printed page”. (Left photo from the Chicago History Museum.)

Mainbocher's career in fashion begun in Paris, where he moved after volunteering with an American ambulance unit during WW1. Prior to opening his couture house, he first became an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and then with his exquisite taste and the talent for fashion sketching he developed during his youth, he became the fashion editor at French Vogue, invigorating the magazine with his lively writing, his sketches and inventive new features such as the popular 'Vogue’s Eye View'. During the Vogue years, with his sharp eye and his faultless taste, Mainbocher recognized and nurtured new talent including George Hoyningen-Huene and the brilliant illustrator Carl Erickson both of whom went on to great heights in their respective careers, creating lasting visual representations of fashion ideas in their time. In 1929, Mainbocher left Vogue to pursue his interest in dressmaking, teaching himself the skills he would come to master. According to “Magic Names of Fashion" by Ernestine Carter, his favourite designers "were Madeleine Vionnet, Augustabernard and Louiseboulanger. He took inspiration from the latter two in the naming of his own couture house, and his style was influenced by all three.

(Fashion Illustration by Mainbocher for Chanel, 1926. Photo: Vogue) Establishing himself at 12 Avenue George V in 1930 (his salon was decorated with flowers, Nymphenburg china and zebra rugs), Mainbocher created flawlessly tailored coats and suits in sumptuous fabrics and beautifully draped bias-cut dresses, incorporating touches of subtle luxury such as fur lining for a floor-length coat in 1938. Mainbocher’s clients included some of the most famous women in the world, from royalty and the nobility to popular movie stars, fashion editors and society doyennes. His most famous client, the Duchess of Windsor, wore Mainbocher on her wedding day at the Chateau de Cande, where she was photographed by Cecil Beaton alongside the Duke in her "Wallis Blue” dress, bringing international fame to its creator (according to Mainbocher, no sample was ever made of the exact colour that was Wallis Blue and while the dress survives, the colour has faded to a light grey). The images which featured in Vogue inspired countless copies, with the original currently in the collection of the Met Museum’s Costume Institute, a gift from the Duchess. In addition to her wedding dress, Mainbocher designed part of the Duchess's trousseau and many other pieces through the years both before and after the abdication, playing a key role in shaping the refined style she retained for the rest of her life - polished, immaculately groomed and the mark of good taste.

(Wedding photo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by Cecil Beaton for Vogue, 1937. The Duchess is wearing a a custom dress in Wallis Blue by Mainbocher. Photo: Vogue)

(A colorized photo of the Duke and Duchess gives an idea of the colour that was Wallis Blue. The Duchess is wearing a hat by Caroline Reboux with sapphire and diamond jewels by Van Cleef and Arpels,).

(The Mainbocher atelier works on the Duchess of Windsor's trousseau. Photo: Chicago History Museum).

At his last couture show before the outbreak of WW2 and eight years before Christian Dior launched his groundbreaking “New Look”, Mainbocher foresaw a return to the hourglass figure, presenting a corset which was famously photographed by Horst in 1939, the last photo taken for American Vogue before the Nazi occupation of France. Mainbocher closed his salon in Paris and moved back to the US, establishing himself in New York where he recreated the atmosphere of his Paris salon and continued to design day and evening wear for his adoring "ladies”, women of style such as Diana Vreeland and Kitty Miller. It was around this time that he took the classic cardigan and dressed it up with beadwork and embroidery, injecting a shot of glamour into the conventional knit. As Sarah Lee writes in “American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell and Trigere”, "Mainbocher’s clothes introduced a luxurious, feminine look that epitomized the casual ease of the rich. In contrast to the styles, cliches really, then prevalent in the movies and theatre, Mainbocher had struck a blow for the elegant individuality that he promoted in his collections”.

(Iconic image by Horst P. Horst featuring Mainbocher's corset. This was the last image photographed in Paris for American Vogue before the Nazi occupation of France).

After a career spanning 40 years, designing not only for his distinguished clients but also for the theatre and during the war years for the American Red Cross, Mainbocher closed his salon in 1971 and he died four years later. His pieces can be found today in many museums around the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Chicago History Museum, where the first exhibition dedicated entirely to Mainbocher, entitled “Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier” was held 2016. Petra Slinkard who curated the exhibition said it best when she told Vogue “He wasn't interested in flip-flopping and following blindly whatever the latest trend was. Main was very steadfast in his aesthetic and in his vision for his clothing”.

Further Reading:

The Magic Names of Fashion - Ernestine Carter

American Fashion: The Lives and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell and Trigere - Sarah Lee

Making Mainbocher - Petra Slinkard

The Power of Style - Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins

The Way She Looks Tonight - Marian Fowler


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