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Museum Preserves Haute Couture Superstars with Online Show

By Amy Zimmer | April 12, 2012 8:01am
Fancy dress costume, “Electric Light,
Fancy dress costume, “Electric Light," by Charles Frederick Worth, 1883
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Museum of the City of New York

MANHATTAN — An elegant swatch of Museum Mile can now be seen from the comfort of one’s home computer.

The Museum of the City of New York launched an innovative online exhibition of nearly 120 works of haute couture superstars Charles Frederick Worth and Main Rousseau Bocher, usually called Mainbocher, Wednesday. They may no longer be household names like Chanel or Versace, but both designers created garments for the city's elite.

Worth founded a Parisian atelier in 1858 that set the standards of haute couture and the course of high fashion, outfitting the who's who of New York's gilded age, from the Schermerhorns to the Vanderbilts. Nearly seven decades later, the Chicago-born Mainbocher learned the fashion trade in Paris and then returned to New York, where he was considered to have modernized the language of couture for the city's 20th century socialites.

"To truly understand New York's obsession with fashion, one needs to know the work of Worth and Mainbocher and understand the role they played in high fashion and high society," Susan Henshaw Jones, director of the Museum of the City of New York, said in a statement.

"It was a mark of prestige to wear Worth," said Phyllis Magidson, the museum's curator of costumes and textiles. "It was unquestionably expensive, the highest quality and rare. It elevated you to celebrity status just by wearing it."

Magidson added that Mainbocher was for "that group of New York women who didn’t want to make a splash when they walked into a room but still wanted to be noticed for looking beautiful."

The online exhibition, which was more than two years in the making, allows viewers to zoom in on 57 Worths (out of MCNY's 130 garments) and 62 Mainbochers (out of its 103) that the museum deemed its most significant examples in terms of design and craftsmanship.

Viewers can closely inspect the details of the garments’ construction to see individual threads and stitches. Each design also includes catalogue entries with social histories. For instance, notes accompanying a cream-colored cashmere twill evening ensemble by Mainbocher discuss how the socialite and style icon Babe Paley wore it to the gala film premiere for "My Fair Lady" in 1964.

"Mainbocher was also known for dressing such fashionistas as the Duchess of Windsor (the former Wallis Warfield Simpson), C. Z. Guest, Millicent Rogers and Gloria Vanderbilt.

By presenting the exhibition online, rather than at the Fifth Avenue museum, the stories of the works can be brought to a large audience while still preserving the garments, Magidson explained.

"This enables us to protect the pieces," she said. "We handled them in the photo process, but it was a very minor disruption as the pieces remain in storage. They’re not exposed to climate changes and light, as they are in an exhibition."

Even with climate control, old clothes usually get worse for the wear after being on display, she noted.

"I’ve never known any garment to come off an exhibition as it came on," Magidson said. "It’s a natural part of the aging process. Unfortunately, it makes these pieces very perishable."