Worth/Mainbocher: Demystifying the Haute Couture
Worth/Mainbocher: Demystifying the Haute Couture juxtaposes the work of two haute couture masters. The trendsetting artistry, A-list clientele, and meteoric careers of Charles Frederick Worth and Main Rousseau Bocher (Mainbocher) distinguished them as the fashion arbiters of their respective eras. Both designers deftly engaged the press to promote themselves, their art, and their design philosophies to optimal effect. In the 19th century, Worth introduced the concept of haute couture as an art form. In the 20th century, Mainbocher's designs built upon Worth's artistic principles, modernizing them to appeal to the more practical lifestyles of his American clientele.
The designation “Haute Couture” is reserved for an elite classification of designers whose high creative standards have earned them formal recognition by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (a division of the French Ministry of Industry), established by Charles Frederick Worth himself in 1868. Requirements for induction, also originated by M. Worth, today require that a designer of hand-finished, made-to-order clothing employ a minimum of 20 artisans working within a laboratory environment and showcase a collection of no fewer than 25 complete looks twice a year. All garments are individually fitted directly on a client’s body or replica thereof. These prerequisites, combined with that of extraordinarily high creative and technical standards of production, have resulted in the induction of only a rarified group of French designers, and only two Americans - Mainbocher and Ralph Rucci - to the Haute Couture.
Worth and Mainbocher shared much in common. Their designs virtually guaranteed their clientele social credibility. Both designers also crafted reputations as philosophers of style, and were regularly interviewed and frequently quoted in the press throughout their lengthy careers. The astronomical cost of their clothing supported the exclusivity of their labels, effectively establishing an ultra-luxury design caché—in Paris and New York alike. Both were also impassioned collectors of opulent and exotic fabrics and trims, the use of which became their hallmark. Significantly, both designers possessed an uncanny facility to convince those who doted on their works that they were stylistically helpless without them. One donor frankly summarized her emotional bond with Main: "... He was my god of a designer."
Beyond their shared focus on external aesthetics—silhouette, textile, and balance of design—Worth and Mainbocher were technically bound by the defining creed of the haute couture. As this on-line exhibition demonstrates, the Worth and Mainbocher labels became veritable symbols for impeccable finishing techniques, their garment’s luxurious exteriors concealing a wealth of tiny hand-crafted details reserved only for the wearer’s enjoyment. Not merely pleasing to the eye, Worth and Mainbocher’s creations become even more awe-inspiring when the virtuosity of their interiors is revealed. Exploring these nuances, this web presentation guides the viewer through detailed analyses of 119 stellar examples from the Museum of the City of New York's Costume and Textile Collection: 57 Worths and 62 Mainbochers judged to be the Collection's most significant examples, measured on the basis of design, workmanship, and state of preservation.
The Museum of the City of New York's Costume and Textile Collection holds 23,000 garments that materially chronicle New York City's evolution as an international fashion capital, while providing insights into its social history. The Collection has been built through the acquisition of garments linked to the city's residents and spans over three hundred years. It is noteworthy to find that 131 collection garments bear the Worth label and 103 bear that of Mainbocher, more than any other designer or manufacturer. Such a disproportionately large percentage of material is explained by the enduring appeal of their garments to trendsetting New Yorkers—Gilded Age social-strivers and Best-Dressed ladies alike. This project—to analyze, digitize, and make accessible these important garments—provides an inside look at the artistry and technical virtuosity that underscores the work of the two defining figures of the haute couture.