B. J. Simmons & Co. Costume Design Records
The London costumier B. J. Simmons & Co. was founded in 1857 by a Mr. B. J. Simmons and operated by his direct descendants well into the 1930s. Simmons' costumes were known for their correctness of period, sophisticated design, and high quality. Despite two world wars, an economic depression, and profound shifts in entertainment forms and tastes including the introduction of the cinema, Simmons adapted to changes in the theatre and dressed at least 1,200 stage and film productions before ceasing operations in 1964. In their busy Covent Garden workshop, dressmakers turned out immaculately constructed stage apparel, often from renderings by leading costume designers. Successful theater managers repeatedly turned to Simmons for historical costumes, especially Herbert Beerbohm Tree whose magnificent stagings of Shakespeare were often outfitted by Simmons.
While best known as a historical costumier for the London stage, Simmons' output was diverse. The company created costumes for a variety of shows in the West End, the provinces, and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the "kitchen sink" dramas of the 1960s. In the 1940s Simmons was the principal supplier of new and stock costumes to J. Arthur Rank and London Film Productions. In addition to making new costumes for professional productions, Simmons operated a thriving rental business which allowed operatic and dramatic societies across England to hire beautifully made garments for amateur productions. Like many theatrical costumiers, Simmons maintained a substantial nontheatrical trade. One such commission was an order placed by the Ethiopian army in 1947 for hundreds of officers' hats.
Simmons began as a family-run outfit known variously as B. J. Simmons, J. B. Simmons, John Simmons & Son/Sons, Simmons/Symmons/Simmonds Brothers, G. B. Simmons, and B. & G. Simmons. The force majeure seems to have been John Simmons, whose name appears in The London Stage and in London newspapers until 1922. According to J. P. Wearing, between 1890 and 1899 Simmons provided costumes for at least forty-two theatre productions in London. By the 1930s, the firm was dressing as many as twenty stage productions per year.
World War II marked the beginning of Simmons' association with the perruquier and costumier Charles H. Fox. Since 1878, Fox had been a major supplier of wigs and costumes for private theatricals and fancy dress balls. When Fox secured a contract with the British army in 1940 to supply costumes to the Entertainments National Service Association, Simmons was forced into a financial crisis. The following year, Fox purchased Simmons with funds provided by the theatrical publisher Samuel French, Fox's financial partner since 1891.
B. J. Simmons continued to operate as a separate concern under the new ownership. French's president Cyril Hogg took a special interest in Simmons, running it as a sort of gentleman's hobby, but the company was not profitable and when Hogg died in 1964, Simmons closed its doors. Fox took possession of Simmons' stock costumes (which in 1936 had reportedly numbered 80,000 items) and rented them out for a time. In 1976, Fox purchased French's interest in Simmons, a transaction which allowed the collection to be sold in the early 1980s. Additional designs were purchased in 2007.
Motley Books, "The Simmons Archive." Unpublished dealer's catalog, 1983.
Vigers, Edith M., "Land of Make-Believe: Clothes Reminiscent of Gallants of Old." The Evening News (London), 17 June 1936, p. .
Wearing, J. P., The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Plays and Players. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976 (and similar volumes for 1900-1909, 1910-1919, 1920-1929, 1930-1939, 1940-1949, 1950-1959).
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(Last modified: 15 March 2007 )
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