Mainbocher: Designer of the “Best Dressed Women in the World”

Today’s post is written by Alicia Henneberry, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

newspaper photo-Mainbocher in a suit, standing next to Griffin in nurse uniform, plane in the background
Mainbocher, alongside Cmdr. Aileen Griffin, arriving in Dallas, TX for the 1960 WAVES Reunion (NAID 6328623)

It was July 1960 and the city of Dallas, Texas was playing host to thousands of Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, who were in town to celebrate the 18th National Reunion of their historic unit. Established in 1942, the Navy WAVES were created to address the need to fill positions at Naval shore stations so that all able-bodied men could be sent to sea duty during World War II. This reunion was particularly unique, as these women were also gathering to bestow an award on a very special guest, an individual who was integral to the success of the WAVES during WWII. He was not a Navy officer or a politician as one may expect, but was in fact the fashion designer and couturier, Mainbocher.

Though the moniker “Mainbocher” is more famously associated with the fashion capitals of Paris and New York, he was originally born Main Rousseau Bocher on October 24, 1890 on the west side of Chicago, Illinois. Growing up with a deep passion for the arts, he pursued education at institutions like the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago and the Arts and Craft School in Munich. He also pursued studies in music and voice in both Paris and the United States, which were interrupted when he served as an intelligence officer for the US in World War I.

draft card showing date/place of birth, occupation (musician), race, etc
WWI Draft Card for Main Bocher; Draft Registration Cards (NAID 572850, M1590)

Though fine arts was his first love, Mainbocher eventually pivoted to join the fashion world, beginning his career as an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. He then joined the staff of Vogue in 1923 as the Paris Fashion editor and eventually rose to become editor-in-chief. He enjoyed great success at the helm of Vogue, but solidified himself as an icon of the fashion industry after resigning from the magazine and establishing himself as a designer, opening “Mainbocher Couture” at 12 Avenue George V, Paris, France in 1929. “Possibly it was because I admire chic women so much,” he stated as the reason he became a couturier, “and that I wasn’t a very good artist and lost my voice – two things I would have very much preferred to do.”

Despite feeling as though fashion was not entirely his calling, Mainbocher nonetheless became the first American designer to become an “imposing fixture” of Paris couture. Fashionable women around the world were drawn to his creations, which were the ultimate embodiment of femininity and chicness, seen clearly in his elegant silhouettes that exuded what his contemporaries called “classic simplicity:”

“Mr. Mainbocher is a creative artist who has interested himself in the basic tenets of clothing – the understanding of the human figure and the devising of line to compliment and lend it grace, without sacrificing its function. His broad general knowledge  has given him the courage of simplicity, which is ever the hallmark of the great artist. The distinction of his cut has never had anything to conceal so that simplicity in its greatest sense has been possible.”

Margaret Cousins, managing editor of McCall’s magazine, 1960
Letter from Margaret Cousins, Managing Editor, McCall’s to Commander Aileen Griffin, USNR-R, Jan 8, 1960 (NAID 6328623)

Mainbocher is credited with the invention of timeless designs still worn today, such as the short evening gown, the strapless dress, and the sheath. Though his designs were high fashion, his clothes never sacrificed wearability. Contemporaries stated that his clothes were so “well-engineered,” that women could play tennis in their Mainbocher regalia. By the onset of World War II, his designs had become beloved by women of the highest society, flaunted by the likes of Ethel Merman, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, and the infamous Wallis Simpson, for whom he designed the wedding gown for her nuptials to the Duke of Windsor. 

It was during the early years of World War II that his keen eye for functional, feminine designs caught the attention of a surprising client: the United States Navy. One of his faithful customers and former colleague at Vogue was Josephine Forrestal, wife of the then Undersecretary of the Navy, James Forrestal. In 1942, she was tasked as the “civilian advisor of uniforms” for the newly established Navy WAVES, and approached Mainbocher about designing the official uniform for the Navy’s women unit, which would also double as the uniform for the Coast Guard women’s unit, the SPARS.

drawn image of marching women in military uniform, front row holds a US and Coast Guard flag
SPARS recruitment poster, c. 1944 (NAID 515462)

Securing a stylish uniform design for the WAVES and SPARS was critical, as it was not meant to be merely ornamental; the uniform was to be a vital tool in legitimizing the idea of women in the military. Many Americans were anxious that service in the military would upend traditional gender norms and diminish the femininity of the servicewoman, including prospective WAVES who had reservations about serving in a male’s uniform. The uniform had to be standardized to befit a military unit, but also highly practical and able to be worn well by women working both desk duties and manual labor jobs. The Navy was also interested in recruiting women who were educated and poised, and needed a flattering uniform that would attract such candidates. And overall, the uniform was needed to create a sense of pride and patriotism in the women who wore them, avoiding the negative feelings the Navy women reservists of World War I, more popularly known as the Yeomanettes, felt about theirs:

“But there was one test to our patriotism which almost proved our downfall — our uniforms. The skirts were straight, tight and of the most awkward length possible. The jackets were shapeless affairs, loosely belted in a sort of “Norfolk” attempt. The ensemble turned out to be about as flattering to the female form as our father’s business suits would have been. The hats were flat, blue sailor models, just the wrong size and shape for any girl who ever wore a hat, except when taking a comic part on the stage. Our big blue capes were rather impressive, but, unfortunately, too heavy to wear except in extremely cold weather. My seven Vassar friends and I tried on our new uniforms for the first time, and were struck dumb by what we saw in the mirror, and when we looked at each other. Normally we were not a bad-looking lot. In those uniforms we could have been outdone in looks by the Salvation Army!”

Mrs. Henry F. Butler

Thus, Mainbocher, renowned for making garments that exuded femininity, wearability and timelessness, was a natural choice for creating the new design. Volunteering his expertise as a service to his country, Mainbocher created three different standard uniform designs for the WAVES and SPARS: the blue dress uniform, a summer white dress uniform, and a summer working uniform.

The blue dress uniform was the main uniform worn by most Navy WAVES, especially in the colder seasons. It featured a single breasted jacket and skirt made of a woven wool material. The jacket was cut to enhance the waistline and flared out to further emphasize the hips, with a stylish collar paired with one of three standard shirt styles and a tie.

The Dress Whites Uniform was made of lighter white Palm Beach cloth, accompanied by a white silk shirt and black tie, as well as white gloves, shoes, and cap. It was cut in an identical fashion to the blue dress uniform. Though originally created exclusively for WAVE officers, it was soon after designated as the summer dress uniform for all WAVES, and was often worn for formal events regardless of season.

woman in WAVES Dress white uniform saluting
WAVES Member Saluting, Northampton, MA (NAID 38330215)

The “Working Uniform,” meant to be worn in summer, was composed of a breezy, white and gray seersucker cotton material. The uniform itself was short-sleeved, and came with a matching jacket. This seersucker uniform was the last design to enter the WAVES uniform package in 1943, in order to provide a “more convenient washable hot-weather attire” than the original blue suit. The gray color was also introduced at that time to match the newly introduced gray uniform approved for male personnel.

There were also additional alternate uniform pieces that could be purchased instead of the standard designs modeled above. For example, trousers instead of the standard blue skirt uniform could be worn by women working in air duties or production jobs. Women were also able to purchase approved accessories like the standard purse or winter jacket, and were all given a stipend upon enlisting with which to purchase the uniforms and desired accessories. The entirety of the women’s uniform package by 1943 consisted of the three different suits, an overcoat, raincoat, shirts that could be ordered in three different colors, neckties in two colors, a handbag, stockings, officer or enlisted hats, as well as aviation coveralls for women working in that industry. 

woman standing w/dark button down jacket w/matching trousers
Navy Uniform with trousers (NAID 6328623)

Mainbocher’s designs were a resounding success. Press coverage of the designs was extensive and complimentary; Vogue published stunning portraits of WAVES Commander Mildred McAfee and Mrs. Josephine Forrestal in the new uniforms, declaring their former editor’s designs “practical and distinguished.” The New York Herald Tribune called the uniform “workmanlike” yet “womanly.” Nancy White, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, stated, “I cannot help thinking…of how many silent prayers of gratitude have been addressed to Mainbocher by thousands of WAVES, for giving their hard work, devotion and courage such an attractive and wearable frame.”

The uniforms did indeed delight the WAVES who would wear them. Former WAVES stated that the Mainbocher designs made enlisting in the Navy instead of other branches an easy choice, attracted as they were by Navy recruitment materials that prominently displayed the uniforms or advertised the chance to own a creation by the famous designer. In their memoirs, many WAVES described the pleasant surprise and excitement they felt when handed their beautiful uniforms, with one former officer, Captain Winifred Quick Collins, describing how she was even greeted with applause upon arriving in New York City in her new regalia. 

Mainbocher’s designs also seemed to avoid some functionality issues faced by women in other units. For example, women of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) were initially issued ill-fitting uniforms that were not improved upon until well into the war, and recruits often resorted to wearing men’s uniform when supplies lacked. They also suffered from a lack of a lightweight, summer appropriate uniform that could withstand hotter climates like those in the Southwest Pacific. This omission led many WACs serving in such climates to suffer illnesses like dermatitis and malaria. Mainbocher’s Navy uniforms and accessories were thoughtfully made for all seasons and weather, and were widely appreciated by the WAVES for their comfort and thoughtful design, described by one former WAVE as being “the best piece of clothing I think I ever had.”

The admiration for his designs was such that other prominent organizations asked Mainbocher to lend his talents to their own uniforms. He went on to design the uniforms for the Women Marines, as well as the Girl Scouts and the Red Cross, and continued his work designing costumes and gowns for stage, screen, and royalty. Mainbocher even designed an evening gown version of the original WAVES uniform for formal events, a design so head-turning that the King of England himself called it “magnificent.”

5 women modeling the different WAVES uniforms
Navy WAVES uniforms featuring the evening gown in center, and the raincoat on the far right (NAID 6328623)

By 1960, the Mainbocher uniform design had been worn by hundreds of thousands of SPARS and WAVES serving around the globe, leading Time magazine to call the WAVES the “best dressed women in the world.” The elegance of the uniforms hadn’t faded by the 18th National Reunion, as the WAVES gathered to honor the man that made them feel, as one WAVE described, “tailor made.” Through the passage of time and many styles come and gone, Mainbocher’s uniforms had remained as fresh and fashionable since they were first produced. This was a fact not lost on fashion editors and loyal fans of the designer, who wrote to the Commander of the WAVES, Aimee Griffin, prior to the reunion to show their support for his award:

“Mainbocher is one of the world’s great designers, whose mastery of cut and whose understanding of the feminine figure have made him, for thirty years, unique in his field. I say “unique” because his acceptance and fame rest not on the idea of impulsive variations from seasons to seasons, but on continuing excellence and beauty in line. The experience of the Waves in finding that his uniform has remained correct and beautiful for eighteen years is also the experience of many women who have Mainbochers in their private-life wardrobes.”

Jessica Daves, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, 1960
Letter from Jessica Daves, Editor-in-Chief, Vogue to Commander Aileen Griffin, USNR-R, Jan 4, 1960 (NAID 6328623)

On that Friday of the reunion, July 29, 1960, the Navy awarded Mainbocher with the Meritorious Public Service Citation for significant contribution to naval service. Mainbocher had taken his first flight in 35 years to be present, delighted at the “pleasure of being with the WAVES.” The WAVES themselves responded in kind, with all retired and reserve WAVES donning their timeless dress blues, and all active WAVES wearing their chic dress whites in his honor. 

His name has not enjoyed the same staying power in American cultural consciousness of many other mid-twentieth century designers. However, Mainbocher undoubtedly occupies a significant place in American fashion history for his contributions to couture and the war effort. As his regular client and actress Mary Martin stated when asked for her thoughts on her favorite designer: “I don’t know of any one man in our time who has done as much to help women in all walks of life to look their best and feel their most comfortable. He is honored, respected and loved by all who are fortunate enough to know him.”

handwritten letter
Letter from Main Bocher to Captain Quick, confirming his attendance at the 18th National WAVES Reunion, July 8, 1960 (NAID 6328623)

Records Used:

  • Primary Program Records, 1942-1972 (NAID 6328623), Record Group 24, entry UD-O9D 1
    • Biographical info on Mainbocher & 18th National Reunion Material (box 4)
    • Press Releases on WAVES, July 1942 – December 1947 (box 18)
    • Outmoded Uniform Photographs (Box 29)

Other Sources:

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