A Mainbocher fashion design was so revered that even socialite Gloria Vanderbilt had to be recommended by an established customer before gaining entrance to his exclusive Fifth Avenue salon. He was reputed one of the world’s most prestigious haute couture designers when eight of his clients made the Ten Best-Dressed Women list in 1947.
Named for his mother’s maiden name and pronounced Maine Bocker, Main Rousseau Bocher was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 24, 1890. His mother began to encourage his love for art at the age of four when she found a sketch of a duck he had drawn in her recipe book.
His father encouraged his love of music. After his father’s death, Main switched from the University of Chicago to the Chicago Art Institute.
He left Chicago in 1909 to study at the Art Students League in New York and worked at a lithographing firm while maintaining and showing his own fashion illustration portfolio and sketches.
Having always yearned to live abroad, Bocher took his mother and sister with him to France where he became the Paris fashion editor and then editor in chief of French Vogue Magazine from 1922-1929. His keen eye, exacting standards, and ability to predict fashion trends allowed him to influence the very popular French fashion industry.
In 1929, Main suddenly resigned his position at Vogue Magazine to open his own couture salon. It was while in his Number 12 Avenue George V salon that Main Bocher contracted his name to Mainbocher and quickly built a select clientele for his elegantly classic creations.
Showing four collections a year, early favorites included bias cut evening formal gowns which draped with ease, afternoon tea length dresses with boldly printed trains, and low cut polka dot dresses in chiffons with ribbons tied at the empire waist.
Other innovative designs were beaded evening jackets, enormously flounced sleeves, cape sleeves, trains and capes, knee length gowns with harem-hemmed peplums, long wool dinner suits with costume dyed fur jackets, and long skirts that opened in the front on knee-length underskirts.
Favored fabrics were batiste, organdy, linen, voile, brocades, and pique. Wealthy American women were frequently photographed wearing his Paris fashions.
An early Mainbocher follower, Wallis Simpson is credited with the expression, “You can never be too thin or too rich.” As he admired her personality, self discipline, and imagination, he was pleased to be chosen as the designer of the wedding dress and trousseau for her 1937 marriage to the former King of England.
The two piece pale blue wedding gown was floor length, the cut was severe, and the design was carefully detailed with tiny covered buttons at the waist and wrists. Mainbocher said, “I named it ‘Wallis blue,’ a blue of which there was never a sample available to anyone.” Yet the gown was quickly copied in the United States and soon became the most photographed in the twentieth century.
Beginning with Wallis Simpson’s bridal wedding dress, his designs would reintroduce the waist. His last Paris collection departed from the thirties unstructured silhouette to return to the nipped-in waistlines with the fifties fashion high bosom and tightly fitted ribcage. Of course, he designed underbust corsets to effect this new phase in fashion.
A black and white photograph of a model sitting with her back to the camera and corset laces trailing to the floor would become named “Mainbocher Corset.” The revolutionary corset was one of the last fashion photographs taken for an American magazine before the Nazi invasion of France. The renowned Horst P. Horst snapped the now famous photograph at 4:00 A.M. as Vogue Magazine evacuated its studio.
Vowing to return to his beloved France after the Second World War, Mainbocher resumed his couture clothing firm on New York’s East 57th Street where he was commissioned by the United States Navy to design their WAVES uniform.
Never lacking for clients, his American made designs were a favorite celebrity fashion. Socialite Barbara “Babe” Paley developed a trust in his taste in fashion and considered him a teacher. Fashion icon and Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers was an early devotee whose style Wallis Simpson is said to have copied.
Despite first being turned away from his salon for wearing black tights, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper’s social prominence became an extraordinary advertisement for his fashions. He stated, “The best public relations is word of mouth between women, rather than the printed page.”
Asserting he was a couturier and never a mere fashion designer, Mainbocher refused to compromise his exclusive and expensive designs in favor of Americans desire for affordable ready-to-wear clothing. He retired in 1971 having dressed generations of women.
Never returning to live in Paris, Main Rousseau Bocher died December 27, 1976.