Designer Diaries – Duchess of Windsor and Mainbocher

“Clothes should be a friend to woman—the kind of friend you can see again and again and not get sick of.

Main Bocher aka Mainbocher

Main Rousseau Bocher was born in Chicago, IL, in 1890. His first name was his mother’s given name, and his full name was pronounced in a very American way: Maine Bocker. When he opened his design company and combined the names into Mainbocher, the pronunciation morphed into a more continental “Mainboshay”.

Main Bocher and Models, Vogue

His father died when he was young, and Main was forced to abandon his college career. At nineteen he moved to New York, worked odd jobs (cigar maker, for one!), and decamped for Munich a few years later. After a stint as an ambulance driver during WWI, he moved to Paris with the dream of singing opera. On the day of his debut, he lost his voice. Out of this broken dream came a new one: he talked his way into a job at Paris Vogue as an illustrator and editor. A dream position, which he then abandoned in 1929 to teach himself clothing design.

Illustration by Main Bocher, Vogue, October 1926 (Chanel’s Ford Dress)

Are you still with us? Main Bocher is not yet 40, but he has embarked on his fourth (or fifth) career, and fashion design had staying power. He wasn’t just a success at it, he was a phenom. By 1932, he was a fixture as a couturier on the Paris scene. Timing is everything, and just before the Nazi occupation, he moved his enterprise to New York.

His designs were considered “severely elegant”, although they aren’t minimalist in the way we use the term today. He is credited with many design innovations, the short(er) evening dress (1931), the strapless dress (1934), a cinched-waist silhouette that predated the New Look (1939), the evening cardigan (1941), and the sheath (1946).

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Mainbocher designed the WAVES (Women’s Naval Reserve during WWII) uniform for the US navy.

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It’s not at all surprising that the self-created American designer met up with such a like-minded soul as Wallis Simpson, who determinedly made herself into an iconic fashion plate. The lead-up to her wedding was a swirl of controversy, and her “vulgarity” was much debated. She wanted a dress that was memorable, elegant, but as untraditional as possible.

Mainbocher created a dress in her signature color of “Wallis blue,” which reportedly matched her eyes. It was fitted with a wide buttoned cummerbund and narrow skirt, to show off her slim figure. Blue is an unstable dye, and the dress has since faded to a cream color.

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Colorized version of Wallis Simpson’s Wedding Dress (Wikimedia Commons)

He also created several other dresses for her trousseau, keeping his staff busy day and night.

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In 1939, the Duchess was photographed for British Vogue wearing the below-left Mainbocher dress with an eighteenth-century silhouette. The dress at the right is another Mainbocher creation, with a high neck, cap sleeves, and a full skirt.

Wallis Simpson posed for her engagement photos in a Mainbocher sequined jacket. The jacket was believed to have been a brilliant blue.

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The self-taught Mainbocher traveled far in his life, eventually designing for socialites like C.Z. Guest and Gloria Vanderbilt. He was a perfectionist, and the details in his designs deserve close scrutiny, for they are works of art in and of themselves. Yet he didn’t get lost in detail, always making the total woman look beautiful.

How are you pronouncing his name in your head?