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Listening to Mainbocher

Posted under Exhibitions by Guest author

With a lifelong interest in music, no Mainbocher exhibition would be complete without a sampling of the songs that inspired and touched the designer. Many of his clients were performers and composers, and Mainbocher is credited with creating costumes for a total of eighteen Broadway plays, concerts, or musicals from 1941 to 1964. The Making Mainbocher gallery features music connected to the shows, composers, and performers with whom he collaborated.

Mainbocher worked with actress Mary Martin on two shows. In One Touch of Venus (1943), Martin played a Venus de Milo-type statue come to life, and Mainbocher’s gowns helped her exude glamour in a role that had been originally offered to Marlene Dietrich. In 1959, Mainbocher worked with Martin again when she portrayed Maria von Trapp in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Representing Martin and Cole Porter in the gallery playlist is “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” written by Porter for Leave It to Me! (1938) and originally performed by Martin.

An inscribed photograph of Mary Martin as Maria von Trapp in her wedding gown. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library

Ethel Merman was another Broadway giant for whom Mainbocher created dresses when she starred in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam (1950). The musical was inspired by the 1949 appointment of American socialite Perle Mesta as ambassador to Luxembourg. The most famous song from the score, Merman and Dick Haymes’s duet “You’re Just in Love,” plays in the gallery.

Mainbocher also created costumes for Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town (1953), which features music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical is based on the stories of Ruth McKenney who in the 1930s came to New York City from Ohio with her sister Eileen. The song “Wrong Note Rag” from the production can be heard in the gallery.

Note that Mainbocher designed costumes for only Rosalind Russell.

Actresses in non-musical productions also looked to Mainbocher to outfit them on stage, including Tallulah Bankhead in Noël Coward’s Private Lives (1948) and Phillip Barry’s Foolish Notion (1945); Peggy Wood in Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941); and Ruth Gordon, Irene Dunne, Lynn Fontanne, and Irene Worth in Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice (1964).

Besides creating clothes for powerful stars who could command his attention, Mainbocher is credited with creating all of the costumes, including those for men, in eight of his eighteen Broadway credits. These include Dream Girl (1945) and Not for Children (1951)—both by Elmer Rice—as well as S. N. Behrman’s Dunnigan’s Daughter (1945) and Paul Osborn’s Point of No Return (1951).

Perhaps one of the most fascinating performers for whom Mainbocher designed stage clothing is the torch singer and actress Libby Holman. She appeared in a number of stage musicals in the 1920s and 30s, including Cole Porter’s You Never Know (1938). In 1954, Holman presented twelve performances of a solo concert on Broadway and wore a Mainbocher gown in the first act. Selections from that concert, titled Blues, Ballads, and Sin-Songs, are included on the playlist.

Finally, an unusual selection on the playlist is “The Hawaiian Waltz,” an instrumental piece that was popularized in the early twentieth century by the dance duo of Thomas Rector and Hazel Allen. A young Main Bocher had painted the pair in 1917, and an image of the painting subsequently appeared in the New York Times.

Oil pastel on canvas. Courtesy of Thomas and Laura Wayland-Smith Hatch

Michael Cansfield is the associate director of development at the Lookingglass Theatre Company.



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