How did a boy named Main Bocher, born in Chicago in 1890, become the Paris couturier Mainbocher, a name synonymous with the most expensive clothes and the most exclusive clientele in midcentury fashion? How did Main, pronounced with a long A, and Bocher, with a hard C, become the floating “Man-bo-shay,” the quintessence of hushed refinement? In celebration of a native son, whose ashes are buried in France, the Chicago History Museum answers these questions with an exhibition as quietly cut and deftly embellished as one of Mainbocher’s own creations.
“Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier,” at the Chicago History Museum through Aug. 20, 2017, is contained in one large gallery and divides Bocher’s life into three periods: his boyhood in Chicago and his peripatetic 20s in Europe; his unprecedented climb in Paris; and his magisterial return to America, where he set up shop in New York, in a townhouse next to Tiffany. There are 30 garments in the show, all but two pulled from the museum’s permanent collection, and they are supported with just the right amount of imagery and ephemera. As if channeling Bocher, Petra Slinkard, the museum’s curator of costume, focuses the show with a light touch.
The period of Bocher’s coming of age, a section titled “An Emerging Talent,” contains surprises. A report card from 1908, for instance, shows that Bocher, at 17, got a D in English because he was “Short on theme-work. Careless.” As a couturier he would be the epitome of care, with every silhouette an embodiment of au point—“just at the right point.” But English and math didn’t interest young Bocher, who was precocious in art and music. His award-winning watercolors of 1913, which nod to the Aesthetic Movement and its Asian influences, here have pride of place. Indeed, the first garment of the show, a one-shouldered evening dress from Spring 1965, is cut from a chiffon of sapphire, lavender and teal, saturated tones very like those in the early watercolors. Bocher’s eye for line and color was consistent.
He didn’t plan to be a couturier. Bocher was a gifted artist but he was also a baritone. After serving in World War I he remained in France to study voice. When his voice didn’t cooperate he turned to fashion sketching. In 1923 he was hired as Paris fashion editor of Vogue, and in early 1929 he was made editor in chief of French Vogue. Within months, however, an idea took him. Why report on clothes? Why not design them? He left Vogue in June, the stock market crashed in October, and the following year, undaunted, he launched Mainbocher. The first American ever accepted into the closed circle of the Paris couture, Bocher was soon dressing women of title, high society and the stage.
The exhibition includes three pieces from 1937, rarities because Mainbochers were not prevalent in the U.S. during the designer’s Paris years of 1930 to 1939. Two of these—a tiered gown of taupe tulle (ethereally au point) and a plaid wool evening jacket—were gifts to the museum from Main himself. The third is a witty little spring suit, a version of which Wallis Simpson, the soon-to-be Duchess of Windsor, chose for her wedding trousseau. (As readers may know, Mainbocher also designed Simpson’s wedding dress, the most famous, or infamous, in modern memory. It made the name of Mainbocher.)
World War II saw Bocher’s return to America, and it was here, from 1940 to 1971, that he brought a moral underpinning to his designs, stating that clothing should look “right, not chic,” and should bring women confidence while serving the task at hand. A succession of custom dresses from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s reiterates the Mainbocher love of inventive handwork played pianissimo upon shapes of Savile Row tailoring and restraint. Integrity was everything. But dash counted, too. An evening dress of Fall 1949, chocolate brown satin with a single strap worked cross-chest—like a grenadier!—is exactly what former client Jean Vanderbilt, in a two-minute memoir taped for the show, describes as “severely elegant.”
Mainbocher’s stress on right-minded performance, on doing one’s duty, found further expression in the uniforms he designed during and after World War II. Tapped by America’s Girl Scouts in 1948, he produced the verdant green shirtwaists of the baby-boom years. The pearl-gray uniform, piped in white, that he conjured for the student nurses at Chicago’s Passavant Memorial Hospital brought gasps of delight when unveiled in 1949. Most moving among these uniforms is the trio of suits he created for the Navy WAVES in 1942. Redolent of history, snappy yet serious, this grouping could be titled “Their Finest Hour.”
Ending the exhibition with a grace note, Ms. Slinkard juxtaposes a WAVES trench coat, doubled-breasted and cut from navy-blue wool, with a wall-size photograph of Mainbocher in 1974, retired in Paris and dressed in a similarly dark and double-breasted wool coat. So present and correct, that naval blue, those rows of buttons. This was Mainbocher’s way: In war, in peace, socially, civically, you sallied forth as if every hour might be your finest.