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A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., 1889-1959
Home Costume Designs Introduction Index of Designers

Wig makers at work in the offices of Charles H. Fox Ltd.
Undated photograph.

Founded in 1857, Simmons' workshops dominated costume preparation in London for over 100 years. Located in Covent Garden, the workshops were in the center of what was and still is the creative crucible of London theater. The great theaters of Covent Garden, the Haymarket, Shaftesbury Avenue, and the Strand were all close by. Consultation between producer and designer, fittings, and last minute alterations were all a few minutes away.

The purpose of this web exhibition, taken from the B. J. Simmons & Co. Costume Design Records, is to give a sense of the immense scope of the Simmons archive and to encourage research. The exhibition is organized into ten categories of costume designs. It showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 productions.

The history of B. J. Simmons & Co. began in 1857 when the firm was founded in London by a Mr. B. J. Simmons. The company was operated by his direct descendants well into the 1930s. Up until the 1920s, Simmons went by a variety of names which makes it difficult to know who was really in charge of the firm. Between 1857 and the mid-1930s, probably at least three generations of the Simmons family worked in the family business. That said, the driving force seems to have been John Simmons, whose name appears in The London Stage and in London newspapers until 1922. In 1964, the firm went out of business, but its best work had been done by 1941, the year Simmons was purchased by the wigmaker Charles H. Fox Ltd.

The Simmons archive includes 34,000 costume designs, as well as almost 30,000 related and supporting items. This latter group includes costing of labor and materials, production timetables, research materials, selected articles and reviews, touring dates, rental arrangements, and photographs of individual costumed actors as well as ensemble groupings. In addition to preparing myriad stage productions, many of which were world premieres, Simmons also designed and prepared costumes for over 100 British films.

The portfolios of original costume designs from the 1870s to the early 1920s are one of the greatest strengths of the archive. Because photographs of productions from this period are often sparse or nonexistent, costume designs are often the only surviving visual record of these early productions.

Another strength of the collection are the frequently used production portfolios which consist of visual documentation of stage productions, primarily in the form of published materials such as clippings, prints, and programs. Over 8,000 productions between 1880 and 1959 are represented in 277 alphabetically arranged portfolios. This invaluable resource allowed Simmons staff and clients to compare several presentations of the same play.

Simmons also had a large rental operation. Costumes originally constructed for a top London production were rented to film companies as well as to regional professional and amateur theaters in Britain and overseas. On occasion an original design was constructed entirely from existing pieces in the wardrobe. The business records segment of the archive contains documentation of the rental side of the business.

This web exhibition was curated by Gordon Peacock, Curator Emeritus of Performing Arts, and Helen Adair, Associate Curator of Performing Arts.

The web site was produced by the staff of the Harry Ransom Center, including:

Daniel Zmud, Webmaster
Erick Clark, Graphic Designer

The Ransom Center is deeply indebted to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding the preservation, arrangement, description, and selected digitization of the Simmons collection, 2002-2004.

Questions and inquiries regarding this site and all rights and permissions concerning its imagery and contents may be addressed to:   webmail@hrc.utexas.edu