Gladys Monkhouse was active as a costume designer for the Broadway stage from 1917 to 1922. From her surviving designs and records of productions in which she worked, she apparently specialized in costumes for the lighthearted musical entertainment that was extremely popular at the time: musical comedies, operettas, revues, vaudeville productions and burlesques. She worked on at least five productions for the Hippodrome Theater from 1918 to 1922, sharing the credits with the costume designers Will R. Barnes and William H. Matthews.
The New York Public Library has an online exhibit called “The Spirit of Color: The Playful Brilliance of Gladys Monkhouse,” featuring original costume designs in their collection. According to the NYPL, Monkhouse’s costumes show a sly feminist sensibility undermining the objectification of women predominant at the time. They assert that her designs for the musical revue Cheer Up (1917) reference “the American modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller and her followers, while her costumes for the ‘women as artists’ materials’ chorus from Jack O’Lantern (1917) satirize the Artists and Models revue series, which featured women only as semi-nude living sculptures.” Monkhouse’s work is also included in Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance, a catalogue of items from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts collections.
New York City emerged at the turn of the century as a booming entertainment venue with some 41 legitimate theaters, the most in the world for a single city. The first three decades of the 20th century were the heyday of lighthearted musicals whose plots served as a contrivance to tie together lavish production numbers. According to Stefanie Munsing Winkelbauer, this booming industry supported dozens of costume designers, on whom the producers depended “to give their shows the necessary optical razzle-dazzle.” She further described the flamboyance of the costumes:
No-one expected the stories to be believable or the characters to be ordinary people: in this colorful land of make-believe, innocent snobbery, royalty galore and generous bank-accounts abounded, allowing the designers’ fancies to run riot with gorgeous gowns, stunning uniforms and saucy outfits for the chorus girls. Plots, such as they were, were often confused and banal but lent themselves to numerous changes of costume often combining wildly different geographical, social or historical themes.
“Gladys Monkhouse.” Internet Broadway Database. 2000-2010. http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=418214 (3 June 2010).
“The Spirit of Color: The Playful Brilliance of Gladys Monkhouse.” Treasures of the New York Public Library. http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/147 (3 June 2010).
Winkelbauer, Stefanie Munsing. Wake up and dream! Costume Designs for Broadway Musicals 1900-1925 from the Theatre Collection of the Austrian National Library. Vienna: Hermann Böhlaus Nachf, 1986. pp. 16-17, 22, 31-34.