Miles White Costume Designs

The following is a guest post from Senior Theater Specialist Walter Zvonchenko.

Miles White costume design for Dream With Music, 1944. Miles White Costume Designs (Box 6, Folder 3), Music Division.

Miles White (1914-2000) was one of the most admired costume designers for the American stage in the 20th century. He came to New York in the 1930s hoping for a career in high fashion.  While that was not to be, his subsequent work for the stage—his brilliant, often spectacular, designs—were testament to a meticulous craftsmanship and finish in the smallest details that are the hallmark of the great fashion designers.

Thanks to the generosity of his godson, Tobias van Rossum Daum, the Library is home to a magnificent array of White’s designs. These encompass work for theater, film, nightclub, ice revue, and circus.

Miles White’s work was a particularly brilliant contribution to New York’s almost forgotten post-prohibition nightclub scene. Midtown Manhattan in the late 1930s and 1940s was home to a number of cabarets that featured colorful, often lavish, revues built around some of the greatest entertainers of the time.

Some of these cabarets had been mainstream Broadway theaters, equipped with full stages. But others had limited stage space not suited to accommodating heavy scenery in a setting already crowded with tables for dining. This stricture gave all the more weight and importance to White’s design, crucial for lending the requisite color and glamour to the evening.

White crossed easily between the closely related worlds of the nightclub and Broadway mainstream theater. He was introduced to both through Marjery Fielding. Fielding was a choreographer, songwriter and producer of many major nightclub revues. Fielding happened to see sketches of White’s work very soon after he came to New York, and began immediately to use his designs in nightclub revues and in the 1938 Broadway musical Right This Way, which opened at the 46th Street Theater on January 4, 1938.

When Fielding first asked him to design for a nightclub, White, who had no experience in theatrical design, visited one of the best known nightspots in the Times Square area. Apparently, he did not care for the costumes worn by the show girls. He was sure he could do much better, and he did.

Miles White costume design for Dream With Music, 1944. Miles White Costume Designs (Box 6, Folder 4), Music Division.

One of Marjery Fielding’s nightclub revues was featured at Philadelphia’s Hotel Walton on Broad Street. An associate of designer Norman Bel Geddes saw White’s work, which led to White’s hiring by Bel Geddes to design costumes for a spectacular ice revue. It Happens on Ice, with songs by Vernon Duke, opened on October 10, 1940 at the magnificent Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center, which seated well over 3000.

The ice show project occasioned construction of an extension of the Center’s already large stage to accommodate the ice production with its large cast. The thrust stage projected well into the auditorium, requiring removal of many rows of orchestra seats, giving White enormous space to put on display spectacular costumes with a host of accomplished skaters.

Subsequently White went with Bel Geddes to Sarasota, Florida, to work for him in production for the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus.  There, White created a wide variety of costumes for performers including the many elephants that were a very prominent part of the production.  White worked on more than one edition of the circus, and later in his career, he created designs for the circus-based film, The Greatest Show on Earth.

In Florida, White met the noted producer, John C. Wilson, through whom White met Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  With Wilson, the Lunts were preparing the production that would become The Pirate.  This was to be a lively spectacle set in a world of intrigue and acrobatics, with Lunt racing about the stage in wildly athletic performance.  White’s costumes came in for particular praise.  The production was a great success, opening in New York at the Martin Beck Theatre on November 25, 1942.

The Pirate was produced by the Theatre Guild, soon after which, the Guild hired White to design the costumes for the Rodgers and Hammerstein vehicle which became Oklahoma!  It opened in New York at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943, becoming a legend of American theater history.  Two years later, he designed costumes for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, opening at the Majestic Theatre on April 19, 1945.  The ostensible settings for both productions, Oklahoma and New England, were far removed from the glamour of Broadway. But White infused both with a high degree of class and color.

The night following Oklahoma!’s premiere, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1943, starring Milton Berle, brought to the stage of New York’s Winter Garden Theatre a very different side of White’s imaginative powers.  The Follies was a lavish production on a scale harking back to the time of Florenz Ziegfeld’s brilliant costuming and background for a grand array of showgirls. A perfect vehicle for White, it was directed by John Murray Anderson with whom White had worked while with Ringling Brothers in Florida.

Miles White costume design for Time Remembered, 1957. Miles White Costume Designs (Bos 8, Folder 6), Music Division.

In 1949, White renewed his association with John C. Wilson who was directing the Jule Styne musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Opening at the beautiful Ziegfeld Theatre on December 8, 1949, the show brought Carol Channing stardom in the role of Lorelei Lee.  The production required nightclub scenes as an integral part of its action, providing White with ample scope for showgirl spectacle

While most frequently working in musical theater, White also created costumes for spoken drama, a notable example of which was his work for Chéri, based on a work of Colette.  Its New York premiere was on October 12, 1959 at the Morosco Theatre.

Time Remembered, based on a play of Jean Anouilh starred Helen Hayes, Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg, opening at the Morosco Theatre in New York on November 12, 1957.  Among White’s designs for this production was a magnificent dress for Helen Hayes.  It forms part of the Paul Stiga collection, which includes several other White designs.

The Library’s Miles White Collection includes designs for many more productions than have been mentioned here. Interested researchers may make arrangements to see the collection via Ask-A-Librarian.

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