B. October 24, 1890 D. December 27, 1976 Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
Award: Navy's Meritorious Public Service Citation, 1960
Mainbocher was born Main Rousseau Bocher on Chicago's west side. He studied at the Lewis Institute and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts until 1909. After moving to New York, he studied at the Art Students' League and worked as a part-time lithographer. He returned to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago in 1911, but the death of his father forced him to leave school and take a job in the Complaints Department at Sears, Roebuck and Company. After studying at the Konigliche Kunstgewerbemuseum in Munich, Germany, from 1911 to 1912, he worked as a sketch artist in New York for the clothing manufacturer E.L. Mayer.
World War I called him into service with the American Ambulance Corps and Intelligence Corps from 1917 to 1918. When the war ended, he remained in Europe and took a job as an illustrator for Harper's Bazaar. He held that job until 1922 when he was hired as a fashion correspondent and later as the editor of French Vogue. Tired of reporting about fashion, in 1929 he bought himself dress forms and, using cheesecloth, taught himself to cut and drape clothes.
When Mainbocher opened his couture house in Paris in 1930, he created an image of an exclusive designer who produced the most elegant and expensive fashions. His designs were simple, conservative, and always made from the finest materials with excellent workmanship. His experience at Vogue taught him to predict what would become fashionable. He used this skill to create popular designs, making him the first American to run a financially successful couture house in Paris.
To preserve his elite reputation, only the top magazines and newspapers were allowed to attend his collections. In an effort to minimize copies of his designs, he required buyers and manufacturers to pay an admission fee (the price of dress) to enter his salon.
Mainbocher's admiration of Madeleine Vionnet is evident in his 1930s bias-cut evening dresses. His 1932 collection of cotton evening dress shocked Paris. Instead of satin and velvet, he chose checked gingham, linen toweling, and cotton pique to create dramatic, floor-length gowns with trendy halter necklines. This collection solidified his reputation for evening wear.
Predating Christian Dior's New Look, Mainbocher introduced the boned, strapless bodice in 1934. A few years later, he featured garments with tiny, cinched waists, another characteristic of the New Look. These styles were a radical departure from the uncorseted, natural looks popular in the 1920s and 1930s. His use of the corset led to a collaboration with Warner to produce a wasp-waisted corset in 1940.
In 1939, as World War II was starting in Europe, Mainbocher left Paris and established his couture house in New York. At that time his popular, slim silhouette was a perfect complement for wartime regulations which limited the use of materials. He started to present short evening dresses and one of his signature designs, the cashmere evening sweater. These luxurious evening sweaters, worn over dresses, were adorned with beads, lined with silk, and fastened by jeweled buttons. He introduced another practical wartime solution, the "glamour belt," an apron or overskirt adorned with sequins or beads which transformed a plain dress into an evening dress.
Throughout his career, Mainbocher preserved his image of his designs by refusing to license his name or open branches or stores. Until 1950 all of his clothing was made to order. In that year he opened La Galerie, a department in his salon which offered clothes in standard sizes. In 1948 he introduced White Garden perfume, his only nonclothing offering.
While Mainbocher was an expert in creating high-fashion chic, he also created what he called "working chic." This type of chic was expressed in the numerous uniforms he designed. In 1942 Mainbocher volunteered to design the U.S. Navy WAVES uniform, which was also adopted by the Women's Reserve of the Coast Guard. Also, he designed uniforms for the American Girl Scouts in 1946, the American Red Cross in 1948, and the Women's Marine Corps in 1951.
In the 1960s, Mainbocher's conservative designs were considered old-fashioned in the new youth-oriented society. In response to changing styles, he offered some evening trouser ensembles in addition to his standards: the long wool coat, box-jacket suits, and glamour belts. He continued designing bias-cut evening dresses reminiscent of his 1930s garments, but the bias-cut's popularity did not return until the 1970s.
By the time Mainbocher retired in 1971, his designs were the most expensive in the country. He retired because his clothes no longer fit the needs of Americans; instead of traditional, costly fashions, Americans were looking for affordable clothes which kept up with the quickly changing trends. See also: Sears, Roebuck and Company; Madeleine Vionnet; Christian Dior.
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