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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.

Posted 17 May 2017

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“By examining the steps taken by Main Bocher to achieve great success as a couturier, this exhibition introduces visitors to the extraordinary career of Main Bocher and invites them to get 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), Bocher 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. 

Photographer unknown, 1939; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library. 

evening dress with matching stole, spring 1966
Gift of Mrs. Dorothy H. Rautbord; 1980.88.7

skirt suit, spring 1954
Gift of Peggy Stanley, CC1971.144ab 

evening dress, fall 1944
Gift of Mrs. A. Watson Armour, III; 1959.348 

Exposition view
©Chicago History Museum

Follow the trajectory of Main Bocher’s life throughout the exhibition, discovering his bold career choices and unrelenting ambition which 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. 

ball gown with accessories, fall 1947
Gift of Mrs. A. Watson Armour, III; 1959.345a-d 

Petra Slinkard Curator of Costumes
Experience: Chicago History Museum (curator of costumes, 2013–present); Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), Textile and Fashion Arts (curatorial associate, 2009–13; curatorial assistant, 2007–09); Art Institute of Indianapolis, Department of Fashion Design and Retail Management (adjunct professor, 2008–13); Indiana University, Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design (adjunct professor, 2005; graduate assistantship, 2003–05); The Sage Collection, Indiana University (curatorial assistant/exhibition designer, 2005–06; collections manager/curatorial assistant, 2002–05)
MS, fashion/textile history, College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University, 2008, concentration in arts administration and museum studies; BA, art history, Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, Indiana University, 2003; BS, apparel merchandising, College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University, 2003, concentration in fashion history and visual merchandising.
Petra Slinkard joined the Chicago History Museum as the curator of costumes in 2013. With almost ten years’ experience curating in the areas of social history and the fine arts, she assisted in shaping exhibitions such as Simply Halston (IMA, 2008); Body Unbound: Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Collection (IMA, 2010), and An American Legacy: Norell, Blass, Halston and Sprouse (IMA, 2012) while developing Friends of the Rag: Art that you Wear (UNI Gallery of Art, University of Northern Iowa, 2011) and Ball-Nogues Studio: Gravity’s Loom (IMA, 2010). For the Chicago History Museum, Slinkard conceived and curated the exhibition Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile® for which she authored a catalog of the same title.
Slinkard lectures on the topics of fashion history and the Museum’s costume collection to organizations including the Costume Society of America and the Chicago Humanities Festival well as to audiences in the Chicagoland area. In addition, she regularly leads tours of the costume collection for professional organizations and students of fashion and costume design.
Slinkard is a national board member of the Costume Society of America, serving as the committee chair for the Richard Martin Award for Exhibition Excellence and her region’s newsletter editor. She is also a member of the Association of Art Museum Curators. Her interests lie in historical dress as it pertains to the study of world cultures, haute couture, fashion show production, adoption and diffusion theories, retail, manufacturing, and subcultural dress. 

evening dress, spring 1954
Gift of Mrs. Katherine W. Field; 1965.399 

evening dress, fall 1945
Gift of Mrs. A. Watson Armour, III; 1959.346 

evening dress, fall 1946
Gift of Mrs. A. Waston Armour, III; 1959.355 

About The Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum, a major museum and research center for Chicago and American history, has dedicated more than a century to celebrating and sharing Chicago’s stories through dynamic exhibitions, tours, publications, special events and programming. The Museum is located at 1601 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s beautiful Lincoln Park neighborhood. Admission includes our audio tours: $16 adults, $14 seniors/students, free for children 12 years and younger. The Museum is a 2016 recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest award given to these institutions for significant achievements in community engagement. The Chicago History Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Chicago Park District on behalf of the people of Chicago. To learn more visit and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. 

Exposition view
©Chicago History Museum

color-blocked strapless ball gown; i79336.jpg
ball gown, fall 1951
Gift of Mrs. Watson Armour, III; 1962.294 

The Costume Collection
With over 50,000 costume and textile artifacts, the Chicago History Museum’s collection is one of the nation’s premier clothing and fashion collections. The collection spans the breadth of Chicago's history and is particularly strong in materials from the late 19th century to the present. The Museum’s collection, different than other costume collections in the country, uses costume as a powerful lens for understanding the city’s social history and communicating these stories to visitors.
The Museum's extensive couture holdings range from gowns by Charles Frederick Worth the “father of couture” to Paul Poiret’s Sorbet evening gown. Recent designers such as Dior, Halston, Miyake, and Versace along with the innovative designs of Yohji Yamamoto have earned the collection an international reputation. 

Many artifacts in the Museum's collection were made by Chicago's dressmakers, milliners, and manufacturers. The costume holdings encompass a number of items worn by prominent Chicagoans and Americans; some unique pieces include personal items belonging to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Michael Jordan's basketball uniform, and Mahalia Jackson's choir robe. The earliest pieces include suits worn by George Washington and John Adams.

A new emphasis on the significance of clothing as historical artifacts has increased interest in the collection. Recent acquisitions include clothing documenting 19th- and 20th-century work attire, such as uniforms of nurses, police officers, and flight attendants, as well as clothing from Chicago's immigrant communities. Future collecting will also focus on Chicago's once-thriving garment industry and contemporary fashion. 

dress with matching stole, spring 1965
Gift of Mrs. Dorothy H. Rautbord; 1980.88.6 

evening dress, fall 1949
Gift of Mrs. A. Donald Deutsch, 1986.571.1a-c 

The Chicago Historical Society was founded in April 1856 by the city’s leading entrepreneurs to document Chicago’s transformation from a frontier town into a major urban center. The Society’s original collection was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It rebuilt its collection, and in the 1920s, purchased thousands of artifacts and manuscripts from the estate of Charles F. Gunther. This purchase augmented the extensive research library and archival collection and formed the basis of its highly regarded collection of decorative and industrial arts, paintings, sculpture, and costumes. In 1932, the Chicago Historical Society built a red-brick Georgian style facility at North Avenue and Clark Street in Lincoln Park, its current location.

In 2006, the Chicago Historical Society announced its new name: Chicago History Museum. The Museum features the Costume and Textile Gallery, dedicated to displaying changing exhibitions from the Museum’s renowned costume and textile collections; the Konen Family Children’s Gallery, where children learn about Chicago using their senses; and the KPMG and Paul and Katherine Snyder Community Gallery which explores Chicago’s diverse people and places. The Exelon Wing houses the long-term exhibition, Chicago: Crossroads of America, which showcases Chicago’s past in five themed sections; the Tawani Foundation Diorama Hall; and the Chicago Room, an event space connected to the Uihlein Plaza and overlooking Lincoln Park. 

The collection includes 22 million artifacts and documents organized into seven main holdings: Archives and Manuscripts; Architecture; Costumes; Decorative and Industrial Arts; Prints and Photographs; Painting and Sculpture; and Library materials. The collection is kept and maintained at several locations including the Museum.
The Chicago History Museum offers informative and interactive exhibitions and programming that serve Illinois State education guidelines and requirements. The Museum sponsors special teacher conferences and workshops in conjunction with new exhibitions and produces a range of print and multimedia materials for use in the classroom. The Museum also offers wide-ranging public programs, including panel discussions, lectures, walking tours, bus and L tours, book signings, and performance events.
The Chicago History Museum’s website,, serves not only as an introduction to the Museum, but also features special online exhibitions, access to the research collection, blogs, and interactive ways to stay involved in Museum activities. The website also links to the electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.

skirt suit, spring 1937
Gift of Mrs. Stephen L. Ingersoll; 1983.622.4
(*this is suit identical to one worn by Duchess of Windsor) 

WAVES uniform, United States Naval Reserve, c. 1942
Gift of Mrs. Murray Richards; 1951.388; Gift of Mrs. Margaret Heing Abramson; 1987.67

WAVES uniform for summer use, United States Naval Reserve, c. 1942
Gift of Mrs. Myron Ratcliffe; 1992.219; Gift of Mrs. Margaret Heing Ambramson, 1987.67 

evening dress, spring 1947
Gift of Peggy Stanley; 1979.91.1 

The Chicago History Museum is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization and is affiliated with the Chicago Historical Society. The Museum provides exhibitions, programming, and operations that are member supported and privately funded through contributions to the Chicago Historical Society from individuals, corporations, foundations, and government agencies. The Chicago Park District also provides support for all of the Museum’s activities in a unique public-private partnership.
Research Center
Members of the public have access to photographs, architecture drawings, documents, periodicals, maps, books, newspapers, and directories that are found in the Research Center holdings. Other collections holdings are available by appointment only.
Museum Store
The Museum Store offers a wide selection of items on the history and culture of Chicago and the United States, including a large selection of books, posters, photos, jewelry, and toys. In addition to the Clark Street location, the Store is also accessible online at
About The Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum, a major museum and research center for Chicago and American history, is located at 1601 N. Clark Street. The Museum can be reached by CTA buses 22, 36, 72, 73, 151, and 156. Parking is conveniently located one block north of the Museum at Clark and LaSalle Streets (enter on Stockton Drive). Admission includes our audio tours: $16 adults, $14 seniors/students, free for children 12 years and younger. Prices are subject to change. Please call 312-642-4600 or visit us at To learn more follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The Chicago History Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Chicago Park District on behalf of the people of Chicago
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.

evening dress, fall 1946
Gift of Mrs. Clive Runnells; 1967.217 

Museum Hours:
Monday - Saturday, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, 12 noon – 5:00 p.m.
Tuesday – Friday, 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Sunday - Monday, closed
$16 adults, $14 seniors (65+)/students (13-22)
Free for children 12 and under.
Prices subject to change
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1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois 60614-6038, United States
+1 (312) 642-4600 

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