Costumes for “Good Times” at the Hippodrome
Today I am bringing you a fabulous description of theatrical costume production, in an excerpt from the 1920 Dry Goods Economist:
One thousand dozen boxes of thread, 500 dozen boxes of sewing silk, 1000 yards of satin, 1000 yards of silk velvet… 5000 yards of trimming, including rhinestone banding costing up to $50 a yard! …it’s just a part of the material used in making costumes for “Good Times,” the Dillingham production appearing at the New York Hippodrome.
The task of design and producing the 3,500 costumes required for a typical Hippodrome production… is a job that is never done. Hardly is the Hippodrome opening in mid-August over when R. H. Burnside, the costume wizard of the spectacle, is deep in consultation with his designers, Gladys Monkhouse and Will R. Barnes, over details for next year’s show.
The Hippodrome must always be at least a year in advance of the styles, lest its hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of costumes become the least bit passé before its long run is over. Miss Monkhouse must make several trips abroad each year with her “ear to the ground” for the latest rumor of line or fabric.
All really is gold that glitters at the Hippodrome, for strict orders are issued by Mr. Burnside that none but the finest materials be used. This is necessary not only to get the gorgeous color effects for which the Burnside spectacles are famous, but also that the costumes may stand the wear and tear of two performances daily for nine months. Thirty wardrobe women are kept constantly at work, mending, pressing and cleaning; but in spite of their efforts, cheap or flimsy materials would quickly come to grief, for the “Hip” coryphée is a strenuous girl, who must not only dance, but skate, swim, dive, ride a bicycle or hang from a trapeze, as the production demands.
As soon as the doors of the theater close for the season in the second week of May, the entire mezzanine floor of the playhouse is shrouded in linen sheets and turned into a huge workroom under the command of “Gus” Anderson, head of the Hippodrome costume department, who supervises the making of practically all the clothes worn in a “Hip” show. Half a dozen power machines are moved in for the heavier stitching, while single machines are used for the more delicate work on chiffon and silk net. Red velvet couches are replaced by long wooden tables for the six cutters, who work with sharpest knives on silks and satins piled ten and twenty thick. A force of more that one hundred cutters, pressers, stitchers, dressmakers and finishers work at top speed during June and July while the new production is in rehearsal. Down in the basement, big dressing-rooms are fitted up where the four hundred members of the chorus and the 150 principals have daily fittings. Every costume in the show is specially fitted to its wearer with as much care as is shown in the most exclusive Fifth Avenue establishment.
It is doubtful if any feminine member of European royalty today possesses a more gorgeous robe than the “Thousand-Dollar Gown” worn by Belle Story as the fairy princess of “Good Times.” This dress, which is fairly short and cut on straight chemise lines, is of heavy white silk brocaded in silver in a chrysanthemum design. This design is further traced out with a slender thread of rhinestones. The skirt has an irregular edge which is finished with a three-inch rhinestone fringe, every stone of which is separately set. The dress is caught at the waist with a heavy rope of rhinestones finished with glittering tassels. It is sleeveless, but over one arm hangs a graceful scarf of white chiffon embroidered in rhinestones. With this goes a rhinestone head-dress in sunburst effect.
Many of the more fantastic and theatrical costumes are the work of Will R. Barnes, an Australian, who understands perfectly the difficult task of evolving a costume which will be effective in the vast spaces of the Hippodrome. Mr. Barnes has had eight years’ experience in designing costumes for the Hippodrome…He spent five months on sketches for “Good Times,” making over three hundred plates and sketches.
The Hippodrome supplies list sounds like my idea of heaven, but I am sure I could never keep up with their pace of production! (This is just part of the article; the whole thing, including descriptions of custom fabrics made for the show, is at the links above.)
Gladys Monkhouse and Will R. Barnes are both given equal credit in the “Good Times” program —
— but there is not much on the Internet about Miss Monkhouse. The New York Public Library did have a small feature exhibition on her, and you can see eight of her designs there. Here is my favorite, The Spirit of Color:
(Eleven more of her designs are listed in the NYPL online catalog, but those links are not working for me and I can’t get the images to appear.)
“Good Times” was presented during the 1920-21 season. The evening show was scheduled to start at 8:14 pm, to run to about 11 pm. It had fifteen scenes, varying from horse and elephant acts, to solo singers, to the famous Twelve Disappearing Diving Girls, to spectacular song and dance numbers with hundreds of dancing girls on stage at once. In the production files online, you can find the plans for the schedule of acts, who appeared in each one and how they were costumed, and the song lyrics, as well as the final printed programs.
The second scene was “The Valley of Dreams,” with Belle Story as Truth singing a duet with Nanette Flack as Youth.
I love that on the notes for Miss Flack’s costume, we get her measurements — 36 1/2, 29 1/2, 44. Not the stereotypical 1920s sylph!
You can even find the lines leading into the song, and the deep and meaningful lyrics:
Many of the more fantastic and theatrical costumes are the work of Will R. Barnes, an Australian, who understands perfectly the difficult task of evolving a costume which will be effective in the vast spaces of the Hippodrome. Mr. Barnes has had eight years’ experience in designing costumes for the Hippodrome…He spent five months on his sketches for “Good Times,” making over three hundred plates and sketches.
The Hippodrome had 5,697 seats. I would have loved to have occupied one of them!