When we think of the fashion capitals of the world we think of New York, Paris,and Milan. As a fashion lover in Chicago, it always disappoints me that Chicago is not part of such a prestigious group. However, Chicago is home to a very iconic figure in fashion and chances are you have never heard of him. Meet Mainbocher, the first American couturier.

The Chicago History Museum’s latest exhibit “Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier” explores the life and legacy of the West Garfield Park native in great depth and detail. While his name is not as famous as Coco Chanel or Christian Dior, this doesn’t mean his contributions aren’t noteworthy. Whether it’s the corset or the strapless gown, you can definitely see a bit of Mainbocher in your favorite garments.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

With each garment in the exhibit, visitors travel through time and get a firsthand look at the couture of the 1930’s through the 60’s. Each piece whether it be the gown worn by Mrs Armour Watson III or the uniforms from the Girl Scouts of America revealed Mainbocher’s astute attention to detail and quality.

Mainbocher had a design philosophy rooted in elegance and sophistication which became apparent in each of his garments. He remains an iconic figure in the world of fashion and his legacy cannot be ignored. Not one to overlook such an iconic figure, we have the Chicago History Museum to thank for breathing more life into his story.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

While there is so much to learn about the first American couturier, I’ve compiled a handy-dandy list of five 5 fast facts you should know about couture and Mainbocher before you visit the exhibit.

So here we go, let’s get a little close and personal with Mainbocher

What is a Couturier?

Since you’ll be learning about the first American couturier, it’s helpful to know what is a couturier. A couturier is a designer that manufactures clothing for a client’s specific measurements and specifications. The designer takes into consideration not only client measurements but also their lifestyle. For example, the garment of a high society socialite would differ from the women of the Red Cross needing new uniforms.

Mainbocher is known for having a deep understanding of his clients which is why his couture creations were highly sought after. To keep up the exclusive nature, prospective buyers made appointments and paid a very high admissions fee. Essentially, the Mainbocher woman never had to worry about someone having her same dress.  Mainbocher was certainly not for the masses so even the most expensive department store just wouldn’t do.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

Why Have I Never Heard of Mainbocher?

If you think you know everything about fashion, you are probably asking yourself why have I never heard of Mainbocher? Well for one, Mainbocher cannot be found in stores. Good luck finding it in Neiman Marcus or Bergdorf Goodman. Fashion houses like Chanel and Dior remain household names because the collections continued even after the designer’s deaths. Mainbocher also never licensed his name since his clothes were exclusively made to order.

You may have better luck finding Mainbocher at auctions, but even still his pieces are incredibly rare. However, if you do manage to get your hands on one of his couture creations expect it to go anywhere from $1,000 – $2,000.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

Was Mainbocher a Trendsetter?

Mainbocher was a trendsetter in more ways than one. One of his most iconic yet controversial creations was the “Mainbocher Corset” It dramatically pulled in the waist and altered an undefined silhouette creating a defined bosom. His last and final Parisian collection featured the iconic yet controversial piece. He was a little ahead of his time by accentuating the figure of a woman in the 1930’s, so the controversy is understandable.

By the way, it’s important to note that Mainbocher’s corset premiered 8-years before Dior’s “New Look”. If you love Dior’s “New Look” which I’m sure you do, then you can thank Mainbocher for that.

Mainbocher also created one of the first strapless ball gowns in the 1930’s. Later in the 1950’s, strapless gowns became a common fixture in women’s fashion making Mainbocher almost two decades ahead of his time. So yes, we have Mainbocher to thank for a lot of trends.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

Did He Design During WWII?

Mainbocher did design during WWII. While anticipating the Nazi invasion in Paris, he sought refuge in New York and opened his fashion house next to Tiffany. He was the first couturier at the time to open an internationally known house in the United States.

Mainbocher still kept busy even during the war.  He designed uniforms for Girl Scouts, The Red Cross, and other military services. Instead of floor length gowns, his dresses featured shorter hemlines. During this time, shorter evening dresses became the mainstay throughout all designer collections due to the strict fabric regulations.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

When Did He Retire?

Mainbocher retired in 1971, which is the same year that CoCo Chanel died. Many believe that this was the year that couture died but I’ll leave that fun fact up to your discretion.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum

Where Can I Learn More About Mainbocher?

You can learn more about the fascinating and wonderful Mainbocher at The Chicago History Museum. You’ll learn all kinds of interesting facts during your visit that will give you a newfound appreciation for a Chicago icon.

If you want even more action, you can become a designer for a day at the make your own couture gown station. Trust me, you’ll have so much fun exploring the fabrics and patterns of Mainbocher by creating your own gown.

Be sure to visit this exciting bit of Chicago History while it’s here. You can buy tickets at the Chicago History Museum’s Website.

Mainbocher: Chicago History Museum