Costume designs by Rex Whistler for Pride and Prejudice

Object name: Costume designs by Rex Whistler, for Pride and Prejudice

Object number: CHWJA:JAH296.1-6

Category: Object

Brief physical description: A set of six costume designs for the 1936 stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at the St James Theatre, London; designed by Rex Whistler (1905-1944). Costumes for the following: Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (green dress), Lady Catherine de Bourgh (purple dress), Elizabeth Bennet, Mrs Gardiner, Lydia Bennet. Each design comprises a pencil and watercolour sketch.

Date: 1936

Brief context: These designs were created by Rex Whistler, one of the most dazzling and diverse artists of the inter-war period, for a hit stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1936, one of the first major adaptations of Jane Austen’s work.

Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy in Three Acts was written by Helen Jerome, an Australian writer who made her name with this adaptation, which is credited with having created the first heartthrob version of Mr Darcy. The show opened on Broadway in 1935 where it was met with critical acclaim and ran for 219 performances. It then transferred to London’s West End, premiering at the St. James Theatre in London in 1936 with a new British cast featuring Celia Johnson as Elizabeth Bennet, a rising star who later made her name in the film Brief Encounter. Rex Whistler designed new sets and costumes for the UK production.

Born in 1905, Whistler is known for his striking murals, illustrations, portraits, adverts and stage designs. He was an elegant, witty young man about town, moving in a smart fashionable, artistic set known as ‘the Bright Young Things’, that also included Edith Sitwell and Cecil Beaton. He had a short but illustrious career, before he was tragically killed in action in 1944.

His costume designs for Pride and Prejudice show his light touch, elegance and sense of humour.

A contemporary review described the production as ‘the happy recapture of the graceful days of the Regency’ which perhaps explains why it was produced at this time – in the aftermath of WW1, the country needed escapism and comfort, beauty and reassurance that they found in Jane Austen’s works.

The costumes were executed to Whistler’s designs by B J Simmons & Co. of Covent Garden.

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