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. His father was an auctioneer and surveyor and he had had three sisters (Jessie, Esther and Clara) and three brothers (Frank, Harold and John). In 1911 they were living at the Old School House in Mersham and Hugh was an articled pupil to a surveyor (perhaps his father).
On 5th September 1914 Hugh Willoughby married Jeannette Alice Maria Challinor in Hampstead. He was listed as an Army Officer and still living at the Old School House in Merstham. He was in the regular army during the 1914-18 war serving in the Seventh Division of the British infantry but at the end of October 1914, not long after his marriage, he became a prisoner of war in Germany for three and half years. Among his fellow prisoners were prominent French and Russian artists and their talk and work interested him greatly. Under their tutelage he devoted his time to the study of line and colour.
Just before the armistice he was exchanged and entered Holland and immediately began designing the costumes and setting for a large festival being staged under the direction of the famous producer Max Reinhardt. His work was so admired that he was put in charge of the lighting and scenery of, what was called, the French Opera House in the Hague (September 1919).
On his return to London he lived his wife in Bryanston Mansions but the marriage faltered and they were divorced in early 1921.
Most likely in 1920, Willoughby applied for a position with the Moss Empire (with interests in the London Hippodrome) combine as an artist and was given a two-year contract as art director of their enterprises. Two examples of his work from this time was the artwork for the programmes for the pantomime Aladdin (1920) and the revue The Peepshow (1921) both at the London Hippodrome.
He was allegedly ‘discovered’ by Albert de Courville, who commissioned him to design the costumes for The Whirligig, (1919 / Palace). This was where he first attracted attention with The Times asking ‘Who is Willoughby?’ But he was in fact still under contract to Moss Empires and so was an automatic choice to design the Whirligig. The ‘discovery’ tag and press attention was just excessive PR. In addition to ‘preparing’ many of the Moss Empires shows he also supervised all of their big touring vaudeville or variety acts.
It was though his connection with Albert de Courville that Willoughby created the costumes for Pif! Paf! at the Marigny in Paris (1920). There are in existence a range of costumes sold at auction over the years by Willoughby for three themes: Under the sea (date not known); Fans (all dated 1920) and Butterflies (not dated). It is thought that all of them were drawn by Willoughby for the Paris music hall or created by Max Weldy in Paris for a London show.
Above: two costume designs by Hugh Willoughby for Fans (taken from the internet)
Above: two costume designs by Hugh Willoughby for Under the Sea (taken from the internet)
Above: two costume designs by Hugh Willoughby for Butterflies (taken from the internet)
The author Angelo Luerti (Not Only Erte: Costume Design for the Paris Music Hall 1918-194 ) through identification of some of the Willoughby sketches in his collection and others, concluded that Willoughby contributed to the following shows at the Casino de Paris: Cach’ton Piano (1920), On Dit ca (1923) Bonjour Paris (1924) and Paris en Fete (1925). However, the programmes do not credit Hugh Willoughby and I suspect that most if not all of the identifications are likely to be erroneous.
Willoughby subsequently designed the costumes for Jigsaw (4/1920 / London Hippodrome) that featured the American dancing stars The Dolly Sisters.
Willoughby also worked on The Co-optimists (6/1921 / Royalty). For the latter, he designed all the sets and costumes and the they were frequently re-used in several later editions since the show became a feature of the London theatrical scene for many years. However, by the late 1920s, although his original Pierrot costumes and settings were reused, there were new costumes and sets from Clifford Pember.
When his contract with Moss Empires expired, Willoughby branched out on his own and designed the costumes and sets for Fantasia (11/1921 / Queen’s), Put and Take (12/ 1921 / Queen’s), Battling Butler (12/1922 / The New Oxford), Arlequin (1922-23 / Empire) and the Rainbow (4/1923 / Empire Theatre).
In October 1921 it was announced that Laddie Cliff, with whom Willoughby worked in The Co-optomists, was producing a new revue in conjunction with Hugh Willoughby that was originally called ‘Thanks Very Much’ and was to feature the comedian Claude Hulbert (brother of Jack Hulbert.’ In the end it became Fantasia (11/ 1921) and Willoughby devised and designed the complete production. There was a wealth of scenery and dresses and the Daily Mirror thought that the scene Aphrodite was ‘a thing of marvellous beauty.’ Willoughby himself was described as a ‘charming and modest young man’ who worked in a tiny studio in Rupert Street.
Sadly, Fantasia was a complete flop and so Albert de Courville revised the show which was then staged as Put and Take (12/ 1921 / Queen’s). Willoughby’s costumes and sets were retained but the plot was dropped and there were new cast members in what was in effect a new show.
In a later press story, Willoughby claimed that he had created the lighting effects and costumes for Albert de Courville’s production of the strange comedy-fantasy-love story Arlequin at the Empire (1922-23). This was the British showing of the successful French production based on the 17th century Italian tale of Harlequin. it was described as being a blend of Don Juan and Faust with a setting of 18th century Venice. Oddly, all the reviews at the time state that all the costumes were created by the French artist Jean Gabriel Domergue.
At a spoof party, in January 1922, Hugh Willoughby turned his flat in Rupert Street into ‘the Rupert Palace’ and staged his own ‘cabaret show’ to mimic the Midnight Follies – an actual cabaret show at the Hotel Metropole. He created a miniature stage with footlights and the auditorium consisted of window ledges. The orchestra consisted of Max Darewski on piano and Danny Burnaby on cornet.
For Jack Buchanan’s Battling Butler (12/1922 / The New Oxford), Willoughby designed the settings and created the colour schemes. The gowns were created by Desiree and designed by Norman Hartnell.
When the actress Elsa Macfarlane (one of the stars of the Co-optimists dressed by Willoughby) married the stage director Clifford Whitley in January 1923, Hugh Willoughby designed her wedding dress of white lace and georgette with a small orange blossom coronet to secure her tulle veil.
Perhaps Hugh Willoughby’s last work in London was for the revised and revamped Albert de Courville revue Hotch Potch headed by Fred Kitchen that was staged at the Stratford Empire in mid-May 1923 and then toured.
Hugh Willoughby also designed dresses for productions staged in Paris, including Pif! Paf! 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.
One mysterious costume design was allegedly created in 1923 and later designated ‘Tosh Twins’ and ‘Sunshine.’ The Tosh Twins were an Australian sister act who arrived in London in April 1927 and began dancing in cabaret and variety halls before appearing at the Moulin Rouge in January 1929 in the short-lived revue ‘Allo Ici.’ They appeared wearing this costume on the front cover of Dancing Times in April 1929, which was annotated with text alluding to their performance at the Moulin Rouge. So High Willoughby’s design must have been reused in 1929 from 1923. The explanation must be that the sketch was done by Willoughby in 1923, most likely for The Rainbow (1923) and executed by Max Weldy in Paris and Weldy simply re-used this sketch for the Tosh Sisters in 1929.
Hugh Willoughby arrived in New York on 22nd May 1923 onboard the President Adams from Cherbourg and listed the dancer and choreographer Allan K. Foster as a friend in the USA. Foster was also travelling with him on the same liner. Foster was a stage director and choreographer and created a famous dance school in New York. He had made many trips to London. In early 1923, Sir Alfred Butt had lured him back to London and he arranged all the dances in the Rainbow (1923) which is where, he became friends with Willoughby.
Willoughby later said that several of his friends and co-workers had migrated to America and he had been urged to join them.
It must have been through Allan K. Foster that Willoughby was introduced to the theatrical impressarios the Shubert Brothers. He made New York his new home and began working for the Shubert organisation designing costumes and helping with scenic design at $75 per week. How long this arrangement lasted is not known. He was also allowed do outside work and his first credit was for the ill-fated Ted Lewis Frolics (8/1923) for the Shuberts’ and staged by his friend Allan K. Foster. But it did not ‘click’ with an audience and Willoughby was ‘a bit discouraged’. He branched out on his own and freelanced and occasionally did some work for Hilar Mahieu at the Brooks-Mahieu Costume Company.
One production he dressed at the time was the new musical comedy from Sissle and Blake called In Bamville (or the Chocolate Dandies, 9/1924) and staged by Julian Mitchell. It was described as ‘Negro entertainment at its best’ and was ‘a gorgeous crazy-quilt of colour, nimble stepping and riotous song.’
Above: two costume designs by Hugh Willoughby from New York dated 1923
When Mahieu, left Brooks-Mahieu in November 1924, Mahieu joined Arlington’s costume company forming Arlington-Mahieu, Inc with offices at 244 West 49th street, New York. Mahieu brought with him ‘two expert designers’, Hugh Willoughby and John N. Booth, whose creations were ‘being noticed along Broadway’ who worked with Kathryn Arlington. Among the productions that had been recently costumed by Paul Arlington were Earl Carroll’s Vanities, Hassard Short’s Ritz Revue, Artists and Models, the Passing Show, I’ll Say She Is, My Girl, the Club Alabam revue, Al Jolson’s new show, all the Little Jessie James companies, the Cunningham and Bennett and the Ledova vaudeville acts, Lena Daley’s burlesque shows and Gus, the Bus.
One early credit for Willoughby was the creation of the setting for the Listening number in the Music Box Revue (4thEdition) that opened 1/12/24 and must have been for Grace Moore’s number called Listening.
Above: Two costume design by Hugh Willoughby 1920s, New York (taken from the internet)
It was also revealed that Arlington-Mahieu acted as American representatives for the costumier Max Weldy in Paris and that his costumes could be fitted in the New York workrooms. They also could furnish original ideas and sketches by Erte and Georges Barbier. It must have been through these connections that Hugh Willoughby supplied some designs to Max Weldy for use in the Folies Bergere show Un Soir de Folie (1925). Although he is credited in the programme it is not specified which scenes he dressed. Through the costumier Max Weldy. Willoughby’s work may have been seen in other European capitals and other shows in Paris.
Hugh Willoughby’s first credits following the move to Arlington-Mahieu was for The Dutch Girl (1/1925). The Emmerick Kalman operetta produced by Raymond Brackett but it was viewed as being miscast, badly produced and failed. Mercenary Mary (3/1925), fared slightly better.
Above: Two costume design by Hugh Willoughby 1920s, New York (taken from the internet)
Willoughby designed the costumes for the Shubert’s revival of The Mikado staged 11th April 1925 at the 44th Street theatre. He also designed the costumes for Will Morrisey’s Chatterbox Revue. This opened in early June 1925 at the Majestic Theatre Brooklyn and Arlington-Mahieu executed the costumes. It was not seen as a good show, the backer pulled out, the New York opening postponed and eventually the show shelved. A little later in October 1925 it was reported that the revue was to be condensed and the given as floor show at the Strand Roof in New York.
In July 1925, the company of Booth, Willoughby and Jones was formed with a studio at 165 West 45th Street. Each member was an artist but it was stated that Hugh Willoughby would do most of the designing, John N. Booth would handle the business detail and Viola Jones would be in charge of the workrooms. The company’s first project was the execution of the costumes from designs by Kiviette for the musical version of Captain Jinks produced by Schwab and Mandel at the Martin Beck Theater (9/1925). It was noted that Hugh Willoughby was a member of the United Scenic Artists Association with a considerable reputation as an artist for the theatre. Besides costume business Booth, Willoughby and Jones were also planning to design settings and supervise the technicalities of productions.
The 7th edition of George White’s Scandals, was staged 22nd June 1925 at the Apollo Theater, New York with 30 scenes. The credits indicate that costumes and curtains were made in Paris by Max Weldy from designs by Paris, but additional costume sketches were provided by Hugh Willoughby. Billboard stated quite clearly that ‘practically all of the principals costumes’ in this edition of George White’s Scandals were by Willoughby. From previous knowledge of Erte’s working pattern, he tended to create two pivotal scenes in any given production. If this is the case with George White’s Scandals, Billboard’s assertion about Willoughby’s contribution may well be accurate.
Above: Two Costume design by Hugh Willoughby 1920s, New York (taken from the internet)
In September 1925, Booth, Willoughby and Jones executed a new wardrobe for the impending tour of the Firebrand, a play that had been staged in New York between October 1924 to May 1925.
A month later, in October, they executed all the costumes from designs by Hugh Willoughby for a musical comedy called The Land of Romance (re-titled Castles in the Air) that was staged by John Meehan and William Elliott in Chicago in December 1925. It was subsequently transferred to the Selwyn Theatre in New York in September 1926 where it was re-dressed. The costumes were once again designed by Hugh Willoughby and executed by Booth-Willoughby but all the principal’s gowns were created by Francis and Company. Hugh Willoughby also designed the sets for the first and third acts.
In an advert in Billboard in late 1925 Booth, Willoughby and Jones was described as company composed entirely of artists with an efficient staff of drapers and fitters and a total absence of high salaried, non-productive executives. This all enabled them to produce the highest quality costumes at the least possible cost.
Booth, Willoughby and Jones subsequently executed the entire wardrobe for the new Aarons and Freedley musical comedy Tip Toes (12/1925) from designs by Kiviette.
They also executed the costumes from designs by Hugh Willoughby for a least four vaudeville productions for the Albertina Rasch dancers all staged in late 1925 and early 1926. The first was an American ballet seen the Keith vaudeville circuit, the second was for a two-week performance at the Palace Theatre New York and the third was for a Pompadour ballet, another tour show staged at Picture theatres as a prequel to the film. The fourth is not known. Albertina Rasch expressed her enthusiasm over the originality and imagination shown in Willoughby’s sketches and the resulting creations.
Above : Two Costume design by Hugh Willoughby, New York, 1926 (taken from the internet)
Also, at the end of 1925, Booth, Willoughby and Jones, executed the costumes for the double bill of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and The Man of Destiny staged at the Klaw Theatre from 23rd November. Covarrubias, an artist best known for his caricatures in the monthly magazines, designed the costumes for Androcles.
There were also commissions for cabaret and vaudeville but only one credit surfaces, where in December 1925 it was stated that Booth, Willoughby and Jones executed the costumes for Betsy Reese, a Keith-Albee artiste.
In January 1927 Hugh Willoughby was credited with designing the costumes for the musical comedy Piggy at the Royale and then Judy first at the Klaw then the Royale. Booth, Willoughby and Jones, carried on 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)
It is strange that Hugh Willoughby’s theatrical credits end in 1938. One can only presume that he found another vocation and source of livelihood. 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
Pif Paf, Marigny, Paris, 1920
Put and Take, 1921
Battling Butler, 1922
Hotch Potch, 1923
Ted Lewis’s Frolics, 1923
Joined Arlington-Mahieu, Inc, November 1924
In Bamville, 1924 (Chocolate Dandies)
The Dutch Girl, 1925
Un Soir de Folie, Folies Bergere, 1925
Formation of Booth, Willoughby and Jones, July 1925
Captain Jinks, 1925
Firebrand, 1925 (regional tour)
Mercenary Mary, 1925
Tip Toes, 1925
Castles in the Air, 1925 (Chicago)
Theatre Guild’s Androcles and the Lion, 1925
Theatre Guild’s The Man of Destiny, 1925
George White’s Scandals, 1925 (7th Edition)
Albertina Rasch ballets (1925-1926)
Castles in the Air, 1926 (New York)
5th ed Earl Carroll’s Vanities 1926
6th ed Earl Carroll’s Vanities 1927 (International Edition?)
Earl Carroll’s Vanities, 1928
Earl Carroll’s Vanities, 1930
Earl Carroll’s Vanities, 1931
Saluta, Imperial, 1934
Tide Rising, 1937
Where Do We Go From Here? 1938
Who’s Who in the Theatre, 10th Edition
Programme for Jigsaw and the Rainbow
Nassau County Museum Services for a copy of his obituary in the Glen Cove Record and Pilot dated 15 November 1973
Costume Design on Broadway by Bobbi Owen
Ellis Island website
The Shubert Archive
Internet Broadway Database
Weekly Despatch 27/2/21
Daily Mirror 22/11/21
Daily Mirror 23/11/21
Daily Mirror 17/1/22
The Stage 14/12/22
Dancing Times April 1929
Pall Mall Gazette 30/1/23