MAINBOCHER

Born Chicago, 1890.
Died Munich, 1976.

Mainbocher’s name should be better known outside the fashion historian’s field than it is. He was the first American designer in Paris and, before that, an influential fashion journalist. He designed the Duchess of Windsor's wedding dress and created clothes which typified all that was best in American design. His real name was Main Rousseau Bocher. He studied art in New York, Paris and Munich, but really wished to be a singer. To keep himself while studying singing he did fashion sketches, first for Harper's Bazaar in Paris and then for Vogue. By 1922 he had abandoned the idea of singing. He left his post as Paris fashion editor at Vogue to become editor of the French Vogue. His career as a journalist was distinguished: he invented the Vogue's Eye View column and discovered the artist, Eric, and the photographer, Hoyningen-Huene. He abandoned this lucrative and influential career in 1929, when, quite suddenly, he decided to open his own couture house. His contacts gained him almost instant recognition. His clothes had the same classic elegance of those of Molyneux, but his real mentors were Louise Boulanger, Augusta Bernard and Vionnet. The latter's bias-cut formed the basis of many of Mainbocher's lines. He closed his successful Paris house at the outbreak of World War II and moved to New York, where he re-opened his doors in 1940. From then until his retirement thirty years later, he produced elegant and very costly clothes to enhance the backs of elegant and very costly women who, if not always ladies, certainly appeared to be so in Mainbocher's exclusive creations. At the other end of the scale were his simple and effective uniform designs for such strangers to high fashion as the WAVES and the American Red Cross.
As a designer Mainbocher must be taken seriously in a European context. His elegantly simple dresses relied on a luxurious use of fabric and a crispness of cut essentially in the great tradition of French haute couture. Although his American opening was largely financed by the Warner Corset Company, all other commercial offers were modestly rejected by Mainbocher, who refused to sell his name to wholesalers or his toiles to downmarket copyists. There was more than a touch of pride in the maestro’s stringent vetting of customers and press and his tyrannical insistence that magazines must always be laid out with two Mainbocher outfits on facing pages. Promiscuous mixing with the work of other designers, even the greatest, was not allowed. Clearly, Mainbocher was a sophisticated and worldly designer and businessman. No simple Chicago lad. he!


Wedding Ensemble, 1937
Silk, kid, straw and coq feathers.
Metropolitan museum of Art, New York.
Gift of the Duchess of Windsor, 1950

Top photo. Collection: satin gown. © Genevieve Naylor/Corbis. Metropolitan Museum of Art.