Haute Couture at the Chicago History Museum

CHICAGO — On display through August, 2017, the Chicago History Museum’s newest exhibit, Making Mainbocher, is a peek at the life and work of Main Rousseau Bocher, an American fashion designer with significant ties to the Windy City.

Main Bocher grew up on the city’s West Side, attending John Marshall High School and the Lewis Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). The majority of his career, however, was spent in New York or Paris, where in 1929 Main Bocher would become “the first American courturier” under the label – and conveniently French looking name – Mainbocher.

The exhibit seems one of quality over quantity; curator Petra Slinkard, the museum’s Curator of Costume since 2013, selected 30 key garments marking significant points in Mainbocher’s career and/or turning points in women’s fashion, with a specific lens on his Chicago roots. Supplemented by illustrations, paintings, and photographs, visitors are able to see the wide range of Mainbocher’s interests and talents and witness the subtle changes in his garments over the course of more than four decades.

“Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier,” on display at the Chicago History Museum through August, 2017 | photo: Lauren Warnecke (instagram)

It’s no secret that mid-century modern things make me drool, so maybe I’m a little (a lot) biased in viewing an exhibit about the man who pretty much defined style in the mid-twentieth century. And yet, what Making Mainbocher makes really clear is that his was approach was understated, his garments practically timeless. Today we sometimes perceive haute couture and the avant garde on the same plane — imagining that the un-wearables on the runways at New York Fashion Week are the epitome of fashion while most of us are toughing it out in blue jeans.

That’s not to suggest that Making Mainbocher‘s mannequins are wearing everyday clothes, but considering the couturier worked in the era of pantyhose and up-dos, Mainbocher’s clothing is approachable, if not comfortable.

At the height of his career, he designed the wedding dress of the Duchess of Windsor. At the same time Mainbocher was dressing Paris’ elites, he was creating uniforms for nurses and World War II women’s military programs, and classing up the Girl Scouts of America.

I was surprised to learn that, despite living most of his life elsewhere, Mainbocher was a Chicagoan through and through, never denying that this is his hometown. As the first “American in Paris,” during America’s Great Depression, he succeeded under nearly impossible circumstances because of his elegant aesthetic, unbreakable work ethic, a lot of pluck and a little luck.

WAVES uniform for summer use, United States Naval Reserve, c. 1942 | Gift of Mrs. Myron Ratcliffe; 1992.219; Gift of Mrs. Margaret Heing Ambramson, 1987.67
WAVES uniform for summer use, United States Naval Reserve, c. 1942 | Gift of Mrs. Myron Ratcliffe; 1992.219; Gift of Mrs. Margaret Heing Ambramson, 1987.67

It’s easy to breeze through this exhibit — don’t. It’s small but exceptionally well-thought out. So take your time and go on the journey. Then spend a couple more hours on the main floor visiting Vivian Meier’s Chicago, tucked in one corner of the museum’s gem: Chicago: Crossroads of America.

I left my first trip to the Chicago History Museum beaming with pride for our beautiful, complicated city and its rich history.

Then I found out my car had been towed.

Oh, the irony.

The Chicago History Museum is located at 1601 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Admission is $16 adults, $14 seniors/students, free for children 12 years and younger, and includes all exhibition and audio tours.


Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.