Friday, May 28, 2010

Ransom Center Exhibit Proves Costume Creates Character

Percy Anderson (1851-1928)
Costume design for A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1911.
Margery Maude as Titania.
(All Images Courtesy Of The Harry Ransom Center.)

Though most actors would be loathe to admit it, an essential ingredient for creating a believable character on stage or screen is a costume. Could Charlie Chaplin convince us he was The Little Tramp without his derby hat, baggy pants, and big shoes? Or to use a more recent example, would anyone buy Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw if she didn't sport her "J'adore Dior" t-shirt, Jimmy Choo stilettos, and Hermes Birkin bag? A new online exhibition from The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin shows virtual visitors that the costume designer was already the actor's best friend as far back as the Victorian era, and that one firm in particular helped hundreds of British thespians get into character whether they trod the boards or made magic on the silver screen.

Costumier's copy, after Aubrey Hammond (1893-1940)
Costume design for The Circle of Chalk, 1929.
Anna May Wong as Chang-Hi-Tang.

The exhibition, entitled A Tonic To The Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B.J. Simmons & Co., spotlights the work of the British company which remained London's premier preparer of costumes for operas, operettas, plays, pageants, pantomimes, musicals, movies, and revues for over 100 years, from 1857 to 1964. This sartorial showcase is divided into 10 distinct types of costume design, illustrated by 228 images taken from 60 historic theatre and film productions.

Percy Macquoid (1852-1925)
Costume design for The Merchant of Venice, 1908.

Alfred Brydone as the Prince of Morocco.

The Ransom Center acquired the B.J. Simmons archive, one of the largest of its kind in the world, in two installments in 1983 and 1987. This vast collection is comprised of 34,000 original costume designs and costumier's copies of the originals, as well as almost 30,000 related items such as production timetables, research materials, selected articles and reviews, touring dates, rental arrangements, and photographs of individual costumed actors as well as ensembles. Altogether the Simmons materials fills more than 500 standard-sized archive boxes.

Costumier's copy, after Doris Zinkeisen (1898-1990)
Costume design for The Way of the World, 1924.

Edith Evans as Mrs. Millamant

Artists employed by B.J. Simmons often copied a set of designs for use in the studio, these "costumier's copies" allowed the designer of record to retain the originals. Some costumier's copies are simple tracings, but most are freehand drawings, and those from the late 19th century are often incredibly exact watercolor renderings. The skilled artists hired by Simmons could not only recreate every minute detail of a designer's work, but also add construction notes, fabric swatches, and even incorporate the actor's face and body type to more accurately portray the finished product. Because stage plays from this era were rarely photographed, costume designs are often the only surviving visual record of these early productions.

Gordon Conway (1894-1956)
Costume design for Aunt Sally, 1933.
Directed by Tim Whelan for Gainsborough Pictures / Gaumont British Picture Corporation, Ltd.

In 2002, the Ransom Center was awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the preservation, arrangement, description, cataloging, and selected digitization of the B.J. Simmons costume design collection. The Simmons collection was in dire need of conservation work. While stored in London, all paper materials in the collection, regardless of size, were folded into letter-size packets, placed between acidic pieces of cardboard, and then bound with cloth ribbons. Papers on the exterior of these packets were often coated with soot from the coal-burning fires of the British metropolis. Many items showed a great deal of wear and tear, and all were full of folds and creases from decades of disuse.

Percy Anderson (1851-1928)
Costume design for Trial by Jury, 1920.

A Lady in the Box.

All papers in the Simmons collection were surface-cleaned to reduce the soot, humidified in a water chamber to soften folds, and then gently blotted and pressed until flat. Any attached fabric swatches were removed during the process, and then replaced using non-rusting stainless steel pins. Materials were then placed in acid-free folders large enough for them to be stored flat within archive boxes. Drawings in need of more extensive conservation were noted for further work. The Ransom Center's paper conservation department completed work on approximately 12,500 drawings and other documents over a two year period. Associate Curator for Performing Arts at the Ransom Center, Helen Adair, stressed the importance of the government grant: "The Ransom Center is fortunate to have had the support of the NEH for this cataloging and preservation project. The NEH recognized that the collection as a whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts, and we never would have been able to tackle a project of this size without its generous support."

Percy Anderson (1851-1928).
Costume design for Chu Chin Chow, 1916.
Courtice Pounds as Ali Baba

The results of this painstaking work are now available to anyone who visits the Harry Ransom Center's website. The images selected for A Tonic To The Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B.J. Simmons & Co. represent the major strengths of the collection. Preliminary sketches and final renderings of costumes for the grand opera, patriotic pageants, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, classic plays by Shakespeare and Shaw, and British cinema are all part of the online exhibition. Two complete costume portfolios for the play Trelawny of the "Wells", one for the 1898 premiere and one for the 1926 revival, are also included. This allows viewers to compare each designer's unique conception of the same material, and to see the progression of stagecraft through the years.

Unknown Designer
Costume design for The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1928.
Julia Neilson as Lady Blakeney.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, costume designers were rarely credited in theatre programs by name. Many did not sign their sketches and renderings, so the creators of these pieces, which were so essential to the effectiveness of stage and screen productions, remain anonymous. But after gazing at the intricate and thoughtful creations on view in this exhibition, there can be little doubt that without the costume designer, even the actor with top billing might wind up being an unknown.


  1. Beautifully written as always, my dear friend! -Sybil

  2. Ha! I got to work on the cleaning for a few days when I was doing conservation work there. Fun stuff! Good to see it's done.

  3. Nice to hear about how the paper conservation was undertaken.


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