Costume design by Lester Ltd

Lester Ltd, Chicago

From beauty marks and rhinestones, glamour, glitz and the spotlights to black light and television, Lester Ltd was the biggest and most influential theatrical costume house in Jazz Age Chicago that endured way into the late 1950s.

A portrait of Lester Essig, 1929
A portrait of Lester Essig, 1929

Lester Ltd was one of the largest costumiers in Chicago and had been created by Lester C. Essig and his wife Margaret in 1918.  He chose the name Lester because he was nervous about using his German sounding surname.  Lester was born 6th Aug 1889 in Spokane, Washington, two days after the Great Spokane fire, to Dr N. Fred and Emma Clay Essig. His father was a famed surgeon.

A costume design by Lester Ltd, 1929
A costume design by Lester Ltd, 1929

In his youth he liked horses and playing polo and his first job was with a food and produce house in Spokane where he worked for 5 years directing fruit pickers. The Essig family toured Europe in the summer of 1906 and Lester decided to return just before the advent of World War 1.  He toured Portugal and in Madrid, via the embassy, met the King of Spain and in France he studied sketching and art. He travelled through Scandinavia and Russia, the Balkans, the Middle East, Egypt and India before returning to America.

A costume design by Lester Ltd
A costume design by Lester Ltd

Lester then went into business with his older brother Frederick Essig Jr who graduated from a business administration school in Boston. At first they tried to sell Kansas merchants a machine for dispensing gummed tape for packaging. He then thought of a gimmick to sell beauty marks, something that was currently in vogue, and created ‘Wee Kiss’ beauty marks. He also created decorative butterfly shapes saturated in perfume and got orders from stores and hotels.  Another significant and lucrative gimmick that he developed was the perfection of artificial rhinestones.

Lester discovered a process that gave the effect of diamond-strewn fabric or a rhinestones effect that was more durable and less heavy than rhinestones and did not ravel like sequins and had many more facets of light. Vaudevillians took to the material with glee and it was soon seen constantly on the variety stage. Lester said he discovered the effect by accident after weeks of experimenting.

Advert for Lester's imitation rhinestones, 1918
Advert for Lester’s imitation rhinestones, 1918 (Image taken from the Internet)

On 28thApril 1917 Lester C. Essig married Margaret Whitney in Salt Lake City. Margaret was a producer of operetta on the Pantages vaudeville circuit and together they developed the idea of a costume business that grew out of their artificial rhinestone sales. Margaret attended to the musical and producing end of the business and Lester did the designing and scenic effects, Their first office was in a Chicago building with producers, music publishers and The Billboard newspaper at 189 North Clark Street. They had one son Lester Essig Jr.

In late 1918 an advert in Variety highlighted Lester’s innovative usage of his artificial rhinestone technique. Described as ‘more brilliant than rhinestones’  they formed wonderful creations that sparkled as if set with thousands of tiny diamonds, including picture hats, slipper heels, poke brim, trench hat and a French helmet. It was made clear that Lester already had a loyal clientele wearing their hats, heels and novelties such as Trixie Friganza, Herbert Clifton, Mollie King, Marjorie Rambeau, Wanda Lyon, Ford Sisters, Jean Berries and Florenz Tempest. Lester Ltd were also designing and creating gowns inlaid with their famous Lester brilliants. One of their first customers was the actress Eva Tanguay followed by the female impersonator Herbert Clifton and the actress Grace LaRue .

A costume design by Lester Ltd
A costume design by Lester Ltd

By May 1919, Lester Ltd moved into new, and larger offices at Suite 612, State Lake Building and made it clear that the Lester Brilliant Creations were an important facet of their business and that their speciality was inlaying these brilliant designs into costumes and materials.  In June 1919, Lester’s father died and his mother Emma inherited his $500,000 estate, a rather considerable sum for 1919.

One early success was the creation of the gowns for the actress Zella Nevada in vaudeville at the Wilson Theatre in August 1919 that were called ‘flashingly beautiful creations.’ One beaded gown was pronounced to be the most gorgeous ever seen in Chicago.

The business really kicked off in the 1920s and in 1920 there were many new developments.  Lester costumed Anna Held, Stella Mayhew, Carl Norman, Morton Family Jugglers, Billy (Swede) Hall, Kilroy and Briton, Grace LaRue, Molly King, Ann Seymour and many others and one early commission was to costume Lou Lester’s Clowns in Clover. In 1920 Lester began supplying costumes for Mike Barnes of Barnes-Carruthers Theatrical Enterprises and costumed cabaret productions at the Marigold Gardens and the Terrace Gardens both in Chicago.

Advert from Lester Ltd, 1920 regarding costuming the Marigold Revue, Chicago
Advert from Lester Ltd, 1920 regarding costuming the Marigold Revue, Chicago (Image taken from the Internet)

The new cabaret show – The Marigold Frolics – opened 10th March 1920 at the Marigold Gardens staged by Elmer Floyd. The show featured Alice Maison, described as the world famous dancing bathing girl, the Tomson Twins, British dancing Twins  along with a chorus of 20 beautiful girls.  All the costumes were created by Lester.  A second edition was launched at the end of April 1920 with a larger chorus of 30 girls and was described as ‘America’s largest revue’ and the most pretentious revue in the history of the classy resort.  Alice Maison in the finale, stood  ‘like a vision in the centre of a shimmering creation of Lester’s most dazzling iridescent cloth frosted with brilliants.’ Indeed, at the time Lester took out advertisements with the headline ‘More brilliant than Rhinestones’ that featured his unique creations that sparkled as if set with thousands of tiny diamonds. This included such things as hairpins, bandeau, picture hats, French heels, tamo’shanter and a poke brim.

A costume design by Lester Ltd
A costume design by Lester Ltd

Fanchon and Marco, the brother and sister West coast production team, was another early client and in the early 1920s Lester created the costumes for some of their shows. Two such credits were for ‘the ‘spectacular super revues’ The Satires of 1920 and Sun Kist (in 1922). Later in 1923, Lester costumed a cabaret show for Fanchon and Marco at the Palais Royale (formerly Taits Café) in San Francisco.

An interesting departure for Lester came in late 1920 when he designed gowns for Hollywood movies.  Mrs Essig in her early days had featured the actress Betty Compson in her vaudeville operettas and via this contact Lester gained a contract for two years to design screen wardrobes for Betty Compson starting with Prisoners of Love released in January 1921. It is likely Lester costumed Compson in later films such as For Those We Love (1921).

Betty Compson wearing a Lester creation in the film Prisoners of Love, 1921
Betty Compson wearing a Lester creation in the film Prisoners of Love, 1921 (image taken from the Internet)

Further editions of Ernie Young shows at the Marigold Gardens in 1921 and 1922 were costumed by Lester. In late 1922 Young’s Fall Frolics featuring the dancing duo Fowler and Tamara and there were two spectacular numbers. All the planets were represented in a weird number called Mystic Night with elaborate and colourful costumes and in another called the ‘Old fashioned number’ the chorus girls step out of their old fashioned skirts dressed for a jazz number.

Lester also gained contracts to dress specific shows including the musical Comedy A Buck on Leave by the DeKalb players in Illinois (1922) and the comedy travesty The Younger Generation with Clara Keating and Harry Ross that toured the Lowe circuit (1923). Lester also costumed specific tableaux at the Chicago theatre and dressed the variety team Gordon and Ford for their European engagement in England and Paris in the summer of 1922 in a music and comedy sketch. Another innovation in November 1922 was the first issue of what was called a ‘magazinette’ of interest to theatrical folks called Lester’s Pallette that amongst other things featured his work for Betty Compson.

In early 1923 Ernie Young staged his newest revue ‘Arabian Nights of 1923’ at the Marigold Gardens, costumed by Lester. The show opened with the dancing of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova and there was a novelty Swing-time number when the chorus on 16 swings decorated with flowers and electric illumination were lowered from the ceiling. There were also a Dumbdora, Mardi Gras and wedding tableaux.

Not only was Lester costuming Ernie Young’s cabaret shows at the Marigold Gardens in Chicago but he also costumed Ike Bloom’s Midnight Frolics. The first confirmed credit comes for the fourth edition in February 1923, so perhaps Lester had costumed the previous three editions from 1921.  It was Chicago’s only all night cabaret with the show divided into 4 sections at 11.30, 12.30, 1.30 and 2.30 and most patron’s did not leave until after 4.30am. It was regarded as the ‘The classiest and speediest ‘revue’ in the city’ and had 6 principals and chorus of 10. Lester’s costumes were viewed as ‘splendid’ and included an oriental parade, a golf number, a jazz number, a wooden soldier number, and a novelty school day number with the 10 girls carrying desks and little stools.  In another number each girl became a post-mistresses and delivered a souvenir parcel to each guest.  Lester costumed further editions in 1923 including the Summer show and autumn show and for the latter there was a living chandelier number on a raised platform, plus an old fashioned number, A lace fan number and an Eskimo number.

Lester also added a third major Chicago cabaret to his list of clients when he costumed the show Rainbow Blossoms at Fred Mann’s Rainbo Gardens in the summer of 1923. Here Elsie Cole, wore a gorgeous gown by Lester with the fabric in colours of the Egyptian King Tut era, combined with a touch of modern style to give it the proper snap.

In April 1923, Lester costumed the play Kikmi staged by the Haresfoot club, the men’s dramatic society of the University of Wisconsin in Madison at a cost of $12,000. This was the second successive year that Lester had provided the costumes for the Club’s productions and no doubt continued to do so for some time thereafter. It was also revealed that Lester had designed costumes for several New York shows, but there is no confirmation anywhere of this.  In the following year Lester also costumed the Haresfoot Club’s 1924 production of Twinkle Twinkle and it was made clear that the cast were male but dressed as women. The lead Byron Rivers who was described as ‘the girl who is a man and yet the perfect lady’ and spent two days with Lester in Chicago for fittings of his gowns.

An advert for Lester appeared in Variety in May 1923 with the headline ‘foremost creator of fashions for the footlights’ announcing that he had established a theatrical establishment catering to those who desire exclusive gowns, costume, hats, novelties and merchandise for individuals and productions. At the same time they moved the business across the street from the State Lake Theatre Building into a building at 18 West Lake Street, Chicago. By 1925 and for three years, Lester had branch offices in Paris, Vienna and Berlin.

Interestingly, for the first half of the 1920s there were numerous mentions of Lester’s activities in the press but thereafter, although the business clearly blossomed there were fewer accounts.

One significant piece of news was Lester’s invention of Vio-Light, that was described as the most ‘smashing lighting effect in 20 years.’ Lester called this black light material for costumes. He started making concoctions made from sulphur and finally perfected a liquid that could be applied to any material that remained luminous after being exposed briefly to lights and could change colour. Vio-light could be supplied in bulk for self-application or ready-made curtains, costumes and gowns could be rented or bought.

Advert for Lester's creation of Vi0-Light making costumes glow in the dark, 1929
Advert for Lester’s creation of Vi0-Light making costumes glow in the dark, 1929

However, some highlights included: the costuming of a Jack Haskell stage show – an oriental ballet – at the Granada Theatre, Chicago in late 1926; Ottawa Kiwanis Club’s the Kiwanis Jollies in early 1927and another Granada Theatre Stage show in Chicago called ‘Let’s Go’ with the Chester Hale Girls in late 1928.

Advert for Costumes that Change Colour from Lester Ltd, 1926
Advert for Costumes that Change Colour from Lester Ltd, 1926

Discussing his work environment, Lester said that he had amassed a huge reference file on costume designs, a huge stock of general property items and had a huge inventory of rental costumes with over 110,000 items. In 1930 at the  National Costumers Association annual meeting he stated that ‘modernism and beauty are what we strive for in costumes… not only private balls and parties but the movies and the vaudeville stage reveal this new desire for modernism in costume.’  Later he also said that he ‘preferred to deal with futuristic and modern designs as they gave the widest field for imagination and an opportunity to attract attention.’

Advert for Costumes that Glow in the Dark from Lester Ltd, 1926
Advert for Costumes that Glow in the Dark from Lester Ltd, 1926

In the 1930s Lester opened a school for fashion models as a sideline and costume the Chez Paree shows and the shows at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

In 1940 he first supplied the Raynell Girl Show on Royal American shows and costumed the Raynell unit on Cetlin and Wilson shows. They also costume the Leon Caxton Show with the Royal American. During World War 2  Lester provided 75 minstrel costumes flown to Trinidad for a navy show.

When Henry Ford introduced his V8 model to dealers they made 350 special costumes including 250 for midgets. Lester specialised in showbiz costuming and tailored suits for business-men and gowns for society women and also specialised in advertising costumes and they once made a costume topped with a sardine can for a sardine company.

At some point after World War 2 he had plans to re-open and re-establish contacts with European costumers for authentic wardrobes of modern and ancient Europe.

In 1950 Lester provided costumes for the Chicago Fair and in the early 1950s provided costumes for the Royal American and Celtic and Wilson shows and costumed clowns and circus troupes like the Christiani family.

The advent of television bought a boom to the rental business and they developed a TV department headed by Roy Hoyer who had gained fame as Dorothy Stone’s partner.  Lester also purchased the Lanquay Costume Company in 1952. It would appear the business closed before 1960 and Lester and his wife moved to Utah in 1960 but in early 1961 Lester C. Essig, aged 71, died after a heart attack suffered while skiing at Alta.

PLEASE NOTE : All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent (unless otherwise listed in the image caption)


Some images of Lester’s costume designs taken from the internet.


Billboard 17/2/51
Variety 13/12/18
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The Atchison Weekly Globe 24/7/19
Variety 27/8/19
The Spokesman Review 10/6/20
Variety 9/4/20
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Billboard 26/6/20
Los Angeles Times 10/9/20
Salt Lake Herald-Republican 2/7/20
The Muscatine Journal 7/2/22
Variety 16/6/21
Variety 23/6/22
New York Clipper 16/8/22
Variety 19/1/23
The DeKalb Daily Chronicle 6/9/22
Variety 17/11/22
Variety 12/1/23
Variety 15/3/23
New York Clipper 14/3/23
Variety 8/2/23
Variety 26/4/23
Kenosha News 20/3/23
Kenosha News Wisconsin 11/4/23
Variety 3/5/23
Variety 10/5/23
New York Clipper 13/6/23
New York Clipper 27/6/23
New York Clipper 11/7/23
Variety 22/11/23
Variety 15/11/23
New York Clipper 27/6/23
New York Clipper 11/7/23
The Capitol Times (Madison) 3/4/24
Exhibitor’s Herald 17/4/26
Exhibitor’s Herald 25/9/26
Ottawa Journal 14/2/27
Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World 1/12/28
The Standard Union 15/7/30
Billboard 17/2/51
Billboard 1/3/52
Salt Lake Tribune 21/2/61




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