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Making Mainbocher at the Chicago History Museum

The legacy of a fashion icon revealed through garments, fashion illustrations, and photography

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The Chicago History Museum is turning a spotlight on a designer who made a forever-lasting impression on the fashion world. The museum’s newest exhibit, Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier opens this Saturday, October 22nd. Like Mainbocher himself, the installation will span continents and several decades of history and twentieth century fashion.

Born Main Bocher, the Chicago native became America’s first couturier in Paris. Dressing such notable figures as Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, his label Mainbocher turned out fashion innovations that soon became wardrobe staples.

“Particularly in the 1930s is when he was blazing trails,” says Petra Slinkard, the exhibit’s curator. “He was taking a look at the notion of simplicity, and minimalism and really presented that as his primary aesthetic. He was very interested in the concept of proper dressing, and ladylike dresses, but at the same time he was introducing strapless dresses in his collections as early as 1934. That was quite a step ahead of the overall adoption of that particular style.”

The exhibit guides patrons through the significant phases of the Mainbocher’s life and legacy. After over a decade in Paris, the designer moved his fashion back to the United States. In the years that followed, he diversified his design focus, creating the iconic uniform for the Girl Scouts, as well as providing couture pieces for America’s elite. Too old for military service, Mainbocher made his contributions to the war efforts by designing uniforms for WAVES, a female division of the Navy. Photographs, fashion illustrations, and oral histories accompany the thirty costume pieces on display, illuminating the designer’s dynamism in fashion.

Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier from Chicago History Museum on Vimeo.

Making Mainbocher is an opportunity to explore the controversy that accompanied the minimalism of his designs. Slinkard notes the backlash over his corseted silhouette, which he premiered in 1939.

“You think of the 1930s silhouette, that very slim, sort of body hugging sinuous draped bodice, draped silhouette, and he is introducing a corseted hourglass figure,” says Slinkard. “People were not that excited about being put back in the corset. So there was controversy there.” Approximately eight years later, Christian Dior would unveil his corseted “New Look.” It was far better received.

Even Mainbocher’s muse, Wallis Simpson, was one of the more controversial figures of the time. The American divorcée put cracks in the Royal Family with her marriage to the intended King. She wore a Mainbocher gown to the occasion.

Slinkard hopes the exhibit will draw guests with varying levels of fashion familiarity. “We are so appreciative and excited for all the people who come to see the fashion,” she said “but hopefully they will bring with them someone who maybe doesn’t know what they are getting into, and they could maybe appreciate the fashion in a different way, or from a different perspective, because there was this other angle that brought them in.”

The exhibit runs through August of 2017. Don’t be surprised if there is something familiar about the unsung designer’s pieces. “His work really is timeless” says Slinkard. “In a way, it is representative of what it means to have good design. Because it has that outstanding longevity, so you could wear any of his pieces today, and it would feel very contemporary and very natural.”

Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier opens Saturday October, 22.