The British artist Hugh Willoughby rose to prominence in the new wave of costume designers and illustrators that emerged after the First World War during the Jazz Age. He made a name for himself in London and Paris before moving to the USA in the mid 1920s.
Hugh Willoughby (1891-1973) was born in Croydon on 15th October 1891, the son of Charles William Willoughby and Clara Evelyn (Thompson) and was educated at Reigate and Eastbourne. He was in the regular army during the 1914-18 war and was a prisoner of war in Germany for two years. His first work for the theatre was for a revue in the Hague, Holland (September 1919). But, he was allegedly ‘discovered’ by Albert de Courville, who commissioned him to design the costumes for The Whirligig, (1919). This was where he first attracted attention with The Times asking ‘Who is Willoughby?” He subsequently designed costumes for Jigsaw (1920) staged at the London Hippodrome and The Co-optomists launched at the Royalty (1921). He also designed dresses for productions staged in Paris, including Piff Paff at the Marigny (1920) and Un Soir de Folie at the Folies Bergere (1925) and through the costumier Max Weldy his work may have been seen in other European capitals and other shows in Paris.
His work was characterised by neat, precise drawings full of detail and exquisitely rendered and finished. He might not have been as flamboyant as some of his contemporaries, especially those working in Paris, but he did create some wonderfully well-drawn and intricate designs that were perfectly evocative of specific themes often required by theatre producers in the 1920s. Although he excelled at costume design, he was also equally at home designing sets and in fact perhaps it is for his set designs that he became better known in America
When he arrived in New York on 22nd May 1923 onboard the President Adams from Cherbourg his first marriage had ended in divorce. He made New York his new home and in late 1923 the Shubert organisation made him an offer to work on their costumes and help with scenic design at $75 per week. He was also allowed do outside work. How long this arrangement lasted is not known but he soon branched out on his own. His first major credits included designing sets and costumes for Ted Lewis’s Frolics (1923), Chocolate Dandies (1924), Mercenary Mary (1925), Castles in the Air (1926), Judy (1927) and Piggy (1927).
At some point in the mid to late 20s he formed the company Booth, Willoughby and Jones, designing and producing costumes and sets for various Broadway productions, cabarets and vaudeville shows including work for Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930) and George White’s Scandals. Later credits included Saluta (1934), Tide Rising (1937) and Where Do We Go From Here? (1938) Nothing is known about his later career but he settled with his wife Jill (nee Williams) in Glen Cove, Long Island and brought up two sons. After retiring he worked for the Glen Players a local theatrical group. He died in Glen Cove on 8th November 1973.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
1919 Whirligig, London
1920 Jigsaw, London Hippodrome
1920 Piff Paff , Marigny, Paris
1921 Co-optimists, London
1921 Fantasia, London
1921 Put and Take, London
1923 Rainbow, Empire Theatre, London
1923 Ted Lewis’s Frolics, New York
1924 Chocolate Dandies, New York
1924 Un Soir de Folie, Folies Bergere, Paris
1925 Mercenary Mary, New York
1926 Castles in the Air, New York
1927 Judy, New York
1927 Piggy, New York
1927 5th ed Earl Carroll’s Vanities, New York
1927 6th ed Earl Carroll’s Vanities, New York
1928 Earl Carroll’s Vanities, New York
1929 Earl Carroll’s Vanities, New York
1931 Earl Carroll’s Vanities, New York
1934 Saluta, Imperial, New York
1937 Tide Rising Lyceum, New York
1938 Where Do We Go From Here? New York