“What you don’t do with a dress is at least (as) important as what you do, do. Too many gadgets can spoil the dress, just as surely as too many cooks, the broth.” A quote from Mainbocher while speaking to the Fashion Group of Chicago in 1940. The wise words above are from the Chicago History Museum’s catalog titled, ‘Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier’, which accompanies an exhibit of the same name currently on view at the Chicago History Museum through August 2017. It is the first exhibit focused solely on the designer, Mainbocher. This is fitting as Mainbocher was born on the West side of Chicago and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Through a very circuitous route and no formal training, Mainbocher ended up in mid-life (age 40) becoming the first American Couturier in Paris.
Mainbocher’s designs were practical, exacting and tended to have an emphasis on minimalism. Mainbocher did not follow trends but set them. He was responsible for introducing the world to the short evening dress, jeweled sweaters, the cocktail apron, the strapless bodice, and reviving the corset eight years before Dior’s ‘New Look’.
Being a collector of vintage jewelry, I find the gowns that Mainbocher created in the 1940s to be the most appealing because of their jewelry-like embellishments. During World War II, because of fabric rationing and not wanting to appear too extravagant during war-time, Mainbocher repeatedly used the same dress silhouette. To create interest and make his gowns beautiful, he added embellishments. Oftentimes these embellishments looked like jewelry. They were beautifully constructed of beads, rhinestones and sequins and mimic the look of necklaces and bracelets.
Mainbocher was very exacting in his vision. By creating gowns embellished with ‘built-in-jewelry’, he could more easily ensure that a customer would not change his intended vision by trying to accessorize the gowns themselves. According to the curator of the exhibition, Petra Slinkard, “Mainbocher did not disallow his clients to wear jewelry, but rather made it easier for them to forgo the selection. The use of trompe l’oeil as a design tool was one he revisited frequently, as evident in his 1940s designs.”
In 1947 Mainbocher created a red velvet strapless gown for Mrs. A. Watson Armour III. Although there was no neckline or cuffs to embellish, Mainbocher created bracelets and a choker made out of red velvet covered balls, beads and sequins to be worn with the dress in order to complete the look. When the fabric rationing of World War II ended, Mainbocher could turn his attention away from embellishments and concentrate more on textiles and garment construction to create beautiful clothing. He did, however retain his minimalist aesthetic and ascribe to the notion that, “Too many gadgets can spoil the dress.”
All rights reserved. Article by Stuart Mesires for Sarara Couture. Stuart is a vintage shop owner, as seen on 1stdibs and former fashion veteran.