A Tale of Two Couturiers: Museum of the City of New York's Online Exhibition of Worth and Mainbocher

From left: Evening coat by Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher), Fall 1932; Theatrical costume, "One Touch of Venus" by Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher), October 1943; Evening jacket by Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher), Fall 1953
(Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

Charles Frederick Worth revolutionized fashion in the 19th century by becoming the first designer to leave his mark – literally – on the pieces he created. Stitching a label that bore his name into his works, the Englishman established a new dressmaking business model in which he dictated design, rather than following the era’s standard practice of taking directions from the customer. The designer found great success in the Paris fashion market and became known to many as the father of haute couture. Some 70 years after Worth’s birth in 1826, Chicago-born Main Rousseau Bocher (who eventually went by the moniker Mainbocher), became the first American to show at the invitation of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. He had learned the skills and developed the eye of a couturier through his experience as editor-in-chief at French Vogue.

The evolution of the two storied designers is the subject of a current online exhibition, “Worth/Mainbocher: Demystifying the Haute Couture,” organized by the Museum of the City of New York. The show features 119 garments — 57 of them Worth’s, and 62 Mainbocher’s — shown on the museum’s Web site. There is no virtual installation; the dresses are presented on two timelines — one ranging from 1860 to 1953 for Worth and the other spanning from 1932 to 1967 for Mainbocher. Each garment links to a page that shows the piece in multiple views and includes a full description, background information, garment structure, and technical details. A magnifying glass allows visitors to zoom in and see the fabrics up close.

A floor-length, ruffled, off-the-shoulder, bell-shaped 1860 Worth gown worn by socialite Sarah Diodati Gardiner kicks off Worth’s section. Move down the line a bit to a 1891-92 red evening dress that flaunts a sweetheart neckline and, due to its modern cut, is widely considered to be 40 years ahead of its time. Towards the end of Worth’s career, the thick petticoats disappear to make way for the slimmer silhouettes of the 20th century, including a 1927 jade and gold lamé dress.

Mainbocher’s timeline begins with a 1932 bias-cut evening coat from his first collection. Also included are the conservative uniforms he designed for Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), a United States Navy organization created during World War II to place women in naval air navigation, air traffic control, and clerical positions. Mainbocher charged the United States Navy $1 for his services. The designer’s later garments, like a 1966 classic black chiffon peplum gown, show his rejection of the swirly psychedelic patterns of the era.

The high-resolution images in the online exhibition offer some benefits that might not be available in a brick and mortar museum setting. Viewers can access complete information about each piece at their leisure, and can easily examine the detail of the fabrics. Of course it’s not a substitute for actually being in the same room with an item, but it’s a close second.

Click on the slide show to see highlights from “Worth/Mainbocher: Demystifying the Haute Couture,” an online exhibition from the Museum of the City of New York.