Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher, 1891-1976)
By Hamish Bowles
The couturier Main Bocher’s rigorous elegance established him as the only preeminent American couturier working in Paris between the wars, and later defined patrician American mid-century style.
Born in Chicago of Huguenot stock, Main Rousseau Bocher studied art in Chicago, New York, and Munich. During World War I he served in the ambulance corps and as a sergeant major in the American Expeditionary Force’s secret service. After the conflict he decided to stay on in Paris, working as an illustrator of books, as a sketch artist for a New York clothing manufacturer, and for “Harper's Bazaar.” In 1922 he was hired by Condé Nast as a fashion editor for French “Vogue,” and two years later became the magazine’s editor-in-chief, where he distinguished himself by encouraging the illustrator George Hoyningen Huene to become a photographer and the artist Carl Erickson – known as Eric – to produce fashion and society illustrations for the magazine. Both protégés would become definitive chroniclers of the fashionable world of their day. Main also encouraged the talents of the designers Augusta Bernard and Louise Boulanger whose sophisticated creations and technical artistry he greatly admired. As an editor Main was noted for his astute ability to select the best-selling clothes that would shape the season to come, and this instinct seems to have informed his decision to pursue a career as a couturier. He left “Vogue” in 1929, spent a year experimenting with toiles to master the techniques of cutting fabric on the straight grain and on the bias, and in 1930 opened his house on the Avenue George V, with financial support from a group of well-heeled and well-connected American women, including Kitty Miller, the Countess de Mun, and Madame Andre Dubonnet (a clause that Main could buy their shares back when he was in a position to do so was implemented not long after. Main Bocher was financially astute; he was also the first designer to inaugurate a caution, or deposit, against purchase, to dissuade copyists and tourists, an idea soon adopted by the whole of the Paris couture). As Bernard and Boulanger had done, he elided his first and last names to title his fashion house.
Mainbocher’s discreet but glamorously appointed third-floor salons, banked with luxurious flower arrangements (Main had worked for a wholesale florist in his youth), soon attracted the gratin of international café society, drawn to the deft sophistication and impeccable workmanship of his unimpeachably ladylike clothes. Unlike many of his contemporaries Main designed everything himself, often as many as three hundred ensembles each for four collections a year. He would convey his concept to his partner, the illustrator Douglas Pollard, (whose career he had nurtured at “Vogue”), who would work up the elaborate finished sketches.
“Vogue” found these designs “severe and chic” a descriptive that fits the taste of the client who would become his paradigm, Mrs. Ernest Simpson, for whom he created the austere and highly influential Wallis Blue crepe dress and jacket that she wore to wed the former King Edward VIII.
Mindful of his own editorial experiences, Mainbocher always demanded that if his clothes were to be featured in the fashion magazines, they were to be given a double-page spread, with no other designer’s work competing.
At the onset of World War II Main fled Paris, closing his salon there. He reestablished himself in New York, in luxurious premises on 57th Street, where he continued to follow the exacting haute couture standards that he had established in Paris. In 1942 Main designed the uniforms for American WAVES, and his celebrated tailoring was later applied to American Girl Scouts’ uniforms (1948), and those of the American Red Cross (1948) and the U.S. Women’s Marine Corps (1952).
“I instinctively veer away form exaggeration,” said Main, “... To me subtlety has quite another and more lasting message.” He was the most expensive and exclusive American couturier of his day (his perfume was only available to his couture clients), although his use of humble fabrics, such as cotton gingham, and devices including interchangeable aprons and sashes to extend the life of his deliberately understated and timeless dresses hint at his thrifty Midwestern background. “Fashion should appear effortless - like beautiful singing,” declared Main (who once harbored hopes of a career as a baritone), and in this spirit he dressed the most elegant American women of the day, Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, Millicent Rogers, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Diana Vreeland among them. His more flamboyant instincts were unleashed in the costumes he created for the stage, for clients including Ethel Merman, Lynn Fontanne, Rosalind Russell, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mary Martin. He costumed Martin for her role as Maria von Trapp in 1959’s “The Sound of Music.”
After he closed his Manhattan house in 1971, Main retired to live in Munich, where he had studied as a young man.
As the International Editor at Large for Vogue, Hamish Bowles is recognized as one of the most respected authorities on the worlds of fashion and interior design. He has written and lectured extensively on the history of fashion, art, and culture, and has edited several books, including Vogue Living: Houses, Gardens, People and The World in Vogue: People, Parties, Places. In 2001, Mr. Bowles was creative consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organizing the exhibition “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.” In 2010, he curated an exhibition on the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, “Balenciaga: Spanish Master,” for the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in Manhattan; in 2011, an expanded version of the exhibition, “Balenciaga and Spain,” traveled to the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Mr. Bowles also has an extensive private collection of historic haute couture and fashionably significant clothes, and has lent pieces to exhibitions at several museums. He currently lives in New York.