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Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier


The Chicago History Museum explores the life and legacy of an enterprising Chicagoan who rose to the heights of the fashion world in its newest costume exhibition, Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier opening Saturday, October 22.

The exhibition features nearly 30 garments from the Museum’s permanent collection. Enhanced by fashion illustrations, photography, oral histories and video, the ensembles reveal the story of a remarkable man and his journey to become the first American working as a couturier in Paris.

“By examining the steps taken by Mainbocher to achieve great success as a couturier, this exhibition introduces visitors to the extraordinary career of Mainbocher and invites them to get to know him as an arbiter of early- to mid-twentieth-century style.” said Petra Slinkard, curator of costume. “This exhibition is the first of its kind, dedicated to the study and presentation of the work of Mainbocher.”

Main Rousseau Bocher (1890–1976) grew up in a modest home on Chicago’s West Side. Educated at John Marshall High School and the Lewis Institute (a precursor to the Illinois Institute of Technology), Mainbocher transformed his interest in the arts into a fashion empire serving royalty, Hollywood icons and the social elite. As stated on his plaque on New York’s Fashion Walk of Fame, “Mainbocher was known for the understated elegance of his couture clothing. Among his innovations were short evening dresses, jeweled sweaters, and a revival of the corset that anticipated Dior’s New Look.”

Most famous for designing the wedding dress of the Duchess of Windsor in 1937, Mainbocher balanced his elite brand by creating uniforms for the Navy W.A.V.E.S. during World War II, the Girl Scouts of America and nursing students at Chicago’s Passavant Memorial Hospital.

Follow the trajectory of Mainbocher’s life throughout the exhibition, discovering his bold career choices and unrelenting ambition that guided him through work in Chicago, Paris and New York. Exhibition highlights include a 1937 suit identical to one selected by the duchess for her trousseau, a stunning strapless ball gown worn by Mrs. Watson Armour III, two items donated by the couturier and samples of his uniforms.

The gallery’s interactive experiences invite visitors to step into a designer role: create a Mainbocher-inspired moniker; flip through sketchbooks featuring fashion illustrations of garments on view; and use Mainbocher’s preferred colors, fabrics, and motifs to design a garment that is projected on a 3-D dress form in the gallery.

The Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum presents a first look at the exhibition at Making Mainbocher: An Opening Night Gala, on Friday, October 21. The fashionable evening gala promises cocktails, dinner and dancing. The event is sponsored by The Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum alongside Liz Stiffel as Presenting Sponsor; Luvanis as Lead Corporate Sponsor; Laurent Perrier; Jewell Catering and BBJ Linen as Event Sponsors; and Chicago Magazine as Media Sponsor. Co-chairs for the event are Nancy Connelly, Marci Holzer, and Mary Shearson.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum with lead corporate sponsor Luvanis. For more on Making Mainbocher and the Chicago History Museum’s programs and exhibitions, visit or call 312-642-4600.


The Chicago History Museum is situated on ancestral homelands of the Potawatomi people, who cared for the land until forced out by non-Native settlers. Established in 1856, the Museum is now at 1601 N. Clark Street in Lincoln Park, its third location. As a major museum and research center for Chicago and U.S. history, the Chicago History Museum strives to be a destination for learning, inspiration and civic engagement. Through dynamic exhibitions, tours, publications, special events and programming, the Museum connects people to Chicago’s history and to each other. To share Chicago stories, the Museum collects and preserves millions of artifacts, documents, images and other items that are relevant to the city’s history. The Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Chicago Park District on behalf of the people of Chicago. 

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