Callista Payne: Costume, Designers, and Modern Style

Noël Coward changed the front of British Culture through his art, but it was not without help from several talented fashion and costume designers. Both supporting Coward in friendship and through their artistic expertise in his shows, designers like Gladys Calthrop, and Edward Molyneux created designs that will be celebrated now, in the Noël Coward: Art in Style exhibit, and for years to come.  These designers focused on reflecting the artistic fashions and fads surrounding Coward’s plays, with efforts to use their style as a means to communicate the familiarity of the time, which provides modern audiences with a unique perspective into the jazz age and the styles of 1930s modern art. 

            Gladys Calthrop, an English set and costume designer, met Coward in 1921, and began a lifetime of work with him, including such plays as The Vortex and Design for Living[1]. Design for Living follows the lives of two Americans in Paris, and an image of the set is below with Coward sitting on the far left[2].  Stephen Patience, in efforts to discuss the grandeur of Coward and his designers perceptions of the world, uses this image to exemplify the extravagance of Coward’s world.  In close proximity to the exuberance of Coward’s lifestyle, the “costume and set designs spoke of an endless round of cocktails and cigarettes- one which present laughter tinkled over a vortex of dread”[3].  Here, Patience offers a nod to some of the most famous of Coward’s works, while really explaining one of the major draws to Coward’s fame- his celebrity came from both immense talent and a level of charisma that could only be reflected by the work of designers like Calthrop. Affected deeply by the interwar period, the jazz age, and more, Calthrop and other designers like Doris Zinkeisen and Oliver Messel were led to parallel not only Coward’s ideas, but the world surrounding them- and what people wished the world around them to be.  Many of Coward’s works are referred to as “drawing-room comedies”, wherein characters are placed in spaces familiar- albeit bourgeois spaces- to the audience.  The characters in Design for Living reflect the art movements surrounding the publication (i.e. Otto as cubism), and the technical design focuses on the artistic and architectural styles that come out of these movements.  Calthrops design of this play “offers an approach to the moderne style that is, in its own way, as heightened as any of Coward’s period settings”[4].  The work of the designers on all of Coward’s productions enhanced the relationship that audiences were able to develop with the characters, the production, and by extension, with the Coward’s celebrity. 

            Costume designs have a similar impact.  One example, which was discussed in its impact on British nationalism by my colleague Alyssa Sharp, is Cavalcade.  Promotional images of the play, specifically drawings of two of the primary characters, the Marryots, are below.  As the high-class nature of the characters requires, these characters are dressed in formal black clothing.  This parallels the characters class, but also adds a level of elegance that would otherwise be lacking in the production. Calthrop worked on the costumes for this production, and one of her costume sketches is also included below[5].  The figure drawing beneath her design shows the elegance and movement she was intending to depict with her fabric, which would have affected the way the actors interpreted the script as well.  This particular sketch was for the Titanic scene of Cavalcade, so the look of an expensive dress was an absolute necessity here. Without designers working with such detail on these plays, Coward’s visions never would have been completed. 

            One particular costume designer, Edward Molyneux, constructed the pieces worn by many of Coward’s productions, including household name Gertrude Lawrence.  Besides Coward’s Private Lives, Lawrence also performed in the 1951 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.  Her work in Britain and in the U.S. has left her an international start, nearly a century after her death.  A reconstruction of the dress worn by Lawrence in Private Lives (both the original and the recreation from the exhibit are below) will be featured in Noel Coward: Art and Style.  The original image also features Coward standing with Lawrence.  The minimalist design and elegance of the all white satin dress showcases clear influences of the jazz age in the cut of the dress, with themes from art deco/modern style incorporated as well [pictured below].  The cut is similar to that of designs typical to Molyneux’s work, which possesses similarities to the aforementioned styles as well as French fashion, as although Molyneux was an Englishman, he operated out of a salon in Paris for nearly thirty years.  Just as set designs like Calthrop’s work greatly impact the appreciation of the play in relationship to the historical context of the playwrights world, costumes such as these provide insight into the styles, culture, and affect that these plays would have in their original performances. 

Photo courtesy of the Noël Coward Estate: Alan Brodie Representation Paddock Suite, The Courtyard, 55 Charterhouse Street, London E1M 6HA

[1] Description of ‘Calthrop, Gladys, Gladys Calthrop Design Collection, 1890s-1950s. V&A Theatre and Performance Collections.

[2] Patience, Stephen. “Dressy Circle.” Apollo: The International Magazine for Collectors. March 2021.  Pp. 46

[3]  Patience, Stephen. “Dressy Circle.” Apollo: The International Magazine for Collectors. March 2021.  Pp. 47

[4] Patience, Stephen. “Dressy Circle.” Apollo: The International Magazine for Collectors. March 2021. Pp. 50

[5] Gladys Calthrop costume design for Cavalcade, 1931, drawn.  V&A Theatre and Performance Collections.

Bibliography:

12th September 1930: Actor and playwright Noel Coward (1899 – 1973) with the actress Gertrude Lawrence in his play ‘Private Lives’ at the Phoenix Theatre. Costumes by Molyneux. (Photo by Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Patience, Stephen. “Dressy Circle.” Apollo: The International Magazine for Collectors 193, no. 695 (March 2021): 46–50. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asu&AN=

Description of ‘Calthrop, Gladys, Gladys Calthrop Design Collection, 1890s-1950s. V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. GB 71 THM/52’ on the Archives Hub website, [https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/gb71-thm/52], (date accessed :22/03/2021)

Gladys Calthrop costume design for Cavalcade, 1931, drawn.  V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. S. 568 – 2021. May 22, 2012. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1247331/gladys-calthrop-costume-design-for-costume-design-calthrop-gladys/

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