Born: Main Rousseau Bocher in Chicago, Illinois, 24 October 1890; adopted name Mainbocher, circa 1929. Education: Studied at the Lewis Institute, Chicago, 1907; Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, 1908-09, and at the Art Students' League, New York, 1909-11; attended University of Chicago, 1911, and Königliche Kunstgewerbemuseum, Munich, 1911-12; studied painting with E. A. Taylor, Paris, 1913-14. Military Service: American Ambulance Corps, and Intelligence Corps, Paris, 1917-18. Career: Lithographer, part-time, New York, 1909-11; sketch artist for clothing manufacturer E.L. Mayer, New York, 1914-17; illustrator, Harper's Bazaar, Paris, 1917-21; fashion correspondent, then editor, French Vogue, 1922-29; established couturier firm, Paris, 1930-39, and New York, 1939-71; also designed stage costumes, from 1932, and uniforms for American WAVES (U.S. Navy), 1942; American Girl Scouts, 1946; American Red Cross, 1948; U.S. Women's Marine Corps, 1951. Exhibitions: Fashion on Stage: Couture for the Broadway Theater, 1910-55, New York, 1999. Collections: Mainbocher sketchbooks, Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Died: 27 December 1976.
Levin, Phyllis Lee, The Wheels of Fashion, New York, 1965.
Lee, Sarah Tomerlin, editor, American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigére, New York, 1975, 1987.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, Couture: The Great Designers, NewYork, 1985.
——, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, NewYork, 1989.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.
"Mainbocher," in Current Biography, February 1942.
"Mainbocher," special monograph issue of Harper's Bazaar, July 1967.
"Mainbocher: Great Gentleman of Fashion," in Harper's Bazaar, June 1971.
"Mainbocher," [obituary], in the Times (London), 5 January 1977.
"The Career of Mainbocher Discussed," in the Times, 14 January 1977.
Lawford, Valentine, "A Look Back in Fashion," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), September 1988.
Cunningham, Bill, "An Elegant Blast From the Past," in the New York Times, 24 September 2000.* * *
The snob appeal of patronizing an American couturier with a French sounding name—extremely successful in Paris for a decade before his arrival in the United States—appealed to the socially élite trade in 1940 New York. No less appealing was the fact that Mainbocher had designed the Duchess of Windsor's trousseau upon her marriage in 1937. In 1930, after several years as editor of FrenchVogue, Mainbocher suddenly decided to channel his artistic sensibilities into the establishment of a couture salon in Paris. Editorial experience enabled him to sense what would become fashionable and to package himself as an exclusive designer to the wealthy and the titled.
From the start, Mainbocher specialized in simple, conservative, elegant, and extremely expensive fashions, the luxury of cut, materials, and workmanship that could only be recognized by those in the know. Most importantly, the clothes, exquisitely finished inside and out, gave self-confidence to the women who wore them.
Mainbocher considered his contemporary Chanel too plebeian, and Schiaparelli too avant-garde. Instead, he admired Vionnet and borrowed her bias-cut technique for his own simple slip evening dresses in the 1930s. Twenty years later, a very similar slip design was employed by Mainbocher, produced in a signature elegant silk velvet fabric. From Augustabernard, another 1920s French dress designer, Mainbocher was inspired not only to form his name, but to use godets in skirts, and shoulder bows to catch the folds of draped bodices. Frequent Mainbocher suit treatments in the 1930s included short capelet effects or dropped shoulders widening into full sleeves. The designer knew his clientéle personally and designed for the lives they led, specializing in evening clothes. For resort wear he ventured into a mix-and-match ensemble consisting of matching top, skirt, bathing suit, and hat. Slim, demure black wool dresses for daytime would sport white chiffon interest at the throat.
While Mainbocher did use some Japanese-like kimonos as eveningwear during this period, his hallmark was nonaggressive, not exaggerated or period dressing. A touch of labor-intensive luxury would be bestowed by all-over sequins on an evening jacket or on a bare top worn discreetly under a jacket. The grayish-blue, "Wallis blue," of the Duchess of Windsor's wedding dress, as well as the long, fluid crêpe dress itself, was widely copied. The simple, conservative elegance of Mainbocher's style, feminine but not fussy, perfectly suited the slim, severe good looks of the Duchess and wealthy women like her. Additionally, she was honoring a fellow American.
In 1934 Mainbocher introduced the boned strapless bodice, and before the war forced him to leave Paris, a waist cincher, forming tiny waisted, pleated and skirted dresses that presaged Dior's postwar New Look. Mainbocher's arrival in New York coincided perfectly with the city élite's love for French couture, for though he epitomized it, he satisfied their patriotism because he was actually an American. Society matrons such as C.Z. Guest and the Vanderbilts, and stage actresses such as Mary Martin, avidly patronized this "most expensive custom dressmaker" who made women look and feel exquisitely well-bred.
Accedance to wartime economies resulted in Mainbocher's short evening dresses, and versatile cashmere sweaters—beaded, lined in silk, and closed by jeweled buttons—designed to keep women warm in their bare evening gowns. Another practical wartime innovation, the "glamor belt," an apron-like, sequined or bead-encrusted accessory, could be added to embellish any plain costume. Practically gratis, Mainbocher designed uniforms for the U.S. Women's Marine Corps, the WAVES (Navy), the American Red Cross, and the Girl Scouts.
As the years progressed, Mainbocher continued to design exclusively on a made-to-order basis, refusing to license his name. La Galerie, a department in his salon, did produce clothes in standard sizes, a compromise for busy women without time for lengthy fittings. The reverse snobbery of the humble pastel gingham or cotton piqué used for fancy dresses appealed to Mainbocher's clientéle, as did refined tweed suits with subtle dressmaker touches such as curved bands or fabric appliqués, worn with coordinating bare-armed blouses. A Mainbocher standby was the little black "nothing" sheath dress.
By the 1950s and 1960s, old guard Mainbocher customers enjoyed wearing impeccably made classic coats and suits of wool, often fur-lined, in the midst of nouveau-riche ostentation. The typical ladylike daytime Mainbocher look was accessorized by a plain velvet bow in the hair instead of a hat, a choker of several strands of real pearls, white gloves, and plain pumps with matching handbag. The integrity of luxurious fabrics, intricate cut, quality workmanship and materials, elegance and classicism, were cherished and worn for years by Mainbocher's upper crust customers.
—Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker
Main (after his mother's Scottish maiden name and pronounced like the New England state) Rousseau Bocher (his French Huguenot surname was pronounced Bocker) was born in 1891 on Chicago's West Side. Artistically inclined from childhood, he attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and had moved to New York City by 1909 to study at the Art Student's League. Broadening his pursuits to include classical voice training as well, he departed for Paris and Munich, where he celebrated his twenty-first birthday. While studying music, he began sketching dresses for fashion designers to help support his mother and sister, who had joined him abroad. They returned to America at the onset of World War I in 1914, but not before three of Main Bocher's drawings were included in an exhibition at the Paris Salon des artistes decorateurs. In New York he financed his studies with the career-building vocal coach Frank LaForge through the sale of his sketches to another Chicago transplant, ready-to-wear manufacturer Edward L. Mayer. This marked the true beginning of his fashion career.
Back abroad in 1917 with a volunteer hospital unit, Bocher enlisted in the United States Army in the Intelligence Corps. Demobilized in France in 1918, he remained there and returned to singing. A vocal failure during a pivotal audition finally forced him to abandon his operatic aspirations and to focus all of his creative attentions on fashion. He applied to the Paris office of Harper's Bazaar as a sketcher, then joined French Vogue in 1923 as the Paris fashion editor, became editor-in-chief in 1927, and resigned over a salary dispute in late 1929. With the financial backing of a discreet group of compatriots that included Mrs. Gilbert Miller, daughter of the American banker and art collector Jules Bache, he now turned his seasoned eye and editing skills toward the realization of his own fashion vision.
At a time when American designers had yet to establish credibility on their native soil, Mainbocher, his name now contracted in the manner of Paris-based couturiers Louiseboulanger and Augustabernard, opened his salon at 12, avenue George V. The impeccable designs and pristine dressmaking of this American-in-Paris proved irresistible, especially to the coterie of international hostess and taste arbiter Elsie de Wolfe. Through her influence Mainbocher was introduced to the most celebrated client of his young career, Mrs. Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson. The international publicity surrounding the austerely classic dress he devised for her Château de Cande wedding to the Duke of Windsor in June 1937 catapulted him to celebrity status, spawning a frenzy for "Wally" dress copies and the color "Wallis blue." His couture models were imported into the United States by elite establishments, including Hattie Carnegie, I. Magnin California, Saks Fifth Avenue's Salon Moderne,
and Jay Thorpe. By decade's end Mainbocher had become a pillar of the world of couture and in the process secured the adoration of a clientele who followed him back across the Atlantic upon his departure from occupied Paris in 1939.
Throughout his forty-year career, Mainbocher's beliefs regarding the purpose and nature of clothing were inseparable from his work and were routinely incorporated into press coverage, providing a running philosophical commentary on his collections:
Between the beautiful classical that has proved its worth and some new stunt, I always choose the tried and true. I like persuasive dresses that have manners and I hate aggressive ill-bred concoctions (Bocher, 1938, p. 102).
A woman who has to remember to arrange any part of what she is wearing, simply cannot be smart. A well-dressed woman always appears to have forgotten what she is wearing.… To me, repose and natural ease are among the inimitable and essential attributes of the well-dressed woman (Bocher, 1950, p. 1).
The fashion press celebrated the opening of Main-bocher's reincarnated salon at 6 East Fifty-seventh Street and his first American-designed collection late in 1940. The November 1941 Harper's Bazaar applauded his rigorous attention to maintaining all the traditions of his Paris house. Innovating ingeniously around daunting governmental restrictions (his invoices stating that his designs met with L-85 standards), his work remained fresh and appealing throughout the balance of World War II. During this period he featured glamour belts, aprons, and overskirts to vary the look of concise short or long black evening dresses. He launched a sensation for plunge-backed evening gowns and "Venus pink" with his Grecian designs for the 1943 Broadway production of One Touch of Venus starring Mary Martin. His surprising English cashmere sweaters, lined either in fur or coordinating silk, or jeweled, elegantly addressed wartime fuel conservation.
The steadfast loyalty of his patrons and press withstood the challenge of the postwar return of French fashion and Christian Dior's triumphant "New Look" (a silhouette Mainbocher himself had presaged with his 1939 Victorian cinch-waist.) Mainbocher was as passionate about fabric as he was fastidious about craftsmanship and design. The opulent simplicity of his clothes weathered the ephemeral. His silhouettes nodded to trends yet remained true to Mainbocher. His archetypal vision of pedigreed, meticulous clothing was as readily transcribed into his polished 1950s designs as it was interpreted in architectural fabrics to relate his minimalist eloquence to the space-aged spirit of the 1960s.
Mainbocher's society client list included Daisy Fellowes, Diana Vreeland, Millicent Rogers, the Duchess of Windsor, Barbara Paley, C. Z. Guest, and Gloria Vanderbilt. He designed on and offstage wardrobes for Mary Martin, Katharine Cornell, Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, and Ruth Gordon.
Mainbocher closed the doors of his salon at 609 Fifth Avenue in 1971. Returning to Europe, he alternated his final years between Paris and Munich, where he died in 1976.
Although a self-described quiet innovator, Mainbocher succeeded in incrementally altering the complexion of contemporary fashion. As a fashion editor he initiated the "Vogue's Eye View" feature and introduced the terms spectator-sports clothes and off-white. As a couturier he promoted the nontraditional use of cotton gingham and lingerie crepe and glamorized cloth coats for evening use. His was the first strapless evening dress, which he executed in black satin in 1934. His wartime civilian and military contributions included "day length" evening dresses and adorned sweaters as well as uniform designs for the WAVES, the women's auxiliary of the Marine Corps, and the American Red Cross. In 1948 he designed the intermediate Girl Scout uniform.
Bocher, Main, "Mainbocher by Main Bocher," Harper's Bazaar, January 1938, 102–103.
Carter, Ernestine. Magic Names of Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
Lambert, Eleanor. Quips and Quotes about Fashion: Two Hundred Years of Comments on the American Fashion Scene. New York: Pilot Books, 1978.
Lee, Sarah Tomerlin. American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigère. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1975.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.
——. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Morris, Bernadine, "Mainbocher, Fashion Designer for Notables Since the 1930's, Is Dead in Munich at 85," New York Times, 29 December 1976, sec. A, p. 14.