MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

The mystery of Mabel E. Johnston, who drew beautiful costumes

Mabel E. Johnston. [Bow dress from unidentified musical.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 77.106.20.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Bow dress from unidentified musical.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 77.106.20.

In 1978, the Museum received a collection of costume design renderings that featured the work of well-known theatrical designers such as Boris Aronson, Charles Le Maire, and Vincent Minelli.  Also included in the gift were over 150 renderings by the donor, a Miss Mabel E. Johnston. Johnston’s drawings  feature a wide range of designs, everything from the whimsical to the outrageous to the strangely elegant, but almost nothing is know about her. When was she born? How did she get started as a designer? And where did she find inspiration? In putting together this blog post, I’m not sure which was more difficult:  unearthing information on Johnston or having to choose only 12 drawings to showcase from her incredibly rich body of work.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Dress and swatch for unidentified show.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 67.88.3

Mabel E. Johnston. [Dress and swatch for unidentified show.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 67.88.3.

The first tidbit I found comes from the Forty-Sixth Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, noting that a Mabel Emma Johnston graduated with a diploma from the Department of Industrial Art in 1922. The report also reveals that earlier that year she was awarded two prizes for costume design in the competition “Good Taste in Dress for Young Girls.”  Below is one of her winning designs, a golfing outfit. As part of the prize, the costume design was built by Hattie Carnegie’s company and given to Johnston at the awards ceremony held at the Art Center, Inc. on East 56th Street.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Student design.] 1922. Museum of the City of New York. 77.106.34.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Student design.] 1922. Museum of the City of New York. 77.106.34.

Less than a year after her graduation, Johnston got her first job for Broadway designing costumes for the 1923 musical comedy Sun Showers.  Johnston worked fairly steadily on Broadway throughout the 1920s, designing mostly for musical comedies and revues.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Showgirl in Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1926.] 1926. Museum of the City of New York. 77.106.17.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Showgirl in Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1926.] 1926. Museum of the City of New York. 77.106.17.

Her designs depict a wide range of looks from the absurd…

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

 …to the absurdly comfortable.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Formal dinner pajamas.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Formal dinner pajamas.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

I find myself particularly fascinated with the above rendering. Writing in the upper left corner identifies the ensemble as “formal dinner pajamas,” which is apparently a thing that has come back into vogue. It just looks so elegant and comfortable. (My esteemed colleagues in the Costumes and Textiles department tell me that what I have enviously dubbed a waist cape is in fact called an overskirt with train.)  The appeal of the pajamas is heightened because of all the beautiful designs I looked at for this blog, this is one I could possibly pull off. Unlike the shimmering number Johnston designed for the 1928 musical Cross My Heart, which I decidedly could not.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.) [Unidentified actress in Cross My Heart.] 1928. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.334.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.) [Unidentified actress in Cross My Heart.] 1928. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.334.

Most of the designs in the collection cannot be linked to a specific production.  The only identifying information found on the patriotic dress below is “Geo. M. Cohan” written on the back.  Johnston did do designs for The Merry Malones, which was written and produced by, and starred George M. Cohan in 1927, but it is possible this was done for a different collaboration or is simply an outfit inspired by Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Occasionally the drawings include working sketches on the reverse. The dress below features a neckline that appears to include vegetables, but pencil sketches on the back seem to explore other options.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Verso of drawing above, unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Verso of drawing above, unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings

 

I include the swimmers below because they feature one of the few renderings Johnston did of a man. The Museum’s collection of Johnston’s work is almost exclusively designs for women.  I don’t know if this was a reflection of her specific focus or if perhaps her designs for men exist elsewhere.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Information on the back of the following drawing indicates it was a costume for Mariposa Hayes. Hayes’s one Broadway credit is the play Spring 3100 which ran for 29 performances in early 1928. Though the majority of the play’s action is an extended dream sequence experienced by an unconscious boxer, it is more likely this dress was designed for Hayes’s act as a touring dancer. The Spring 3100 program does not list anyone associated with costumes for the show, and nowhere have I seen evidence that Johnston was connected with the play.

Mabel E. Johnston. [For Mariposa Hayes.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [For Mariposa Hayes.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

The improbable vine number below is identified as created for The Passing Show, an annual revue produced by the Shuberts between 1912 and 1924.  There is nothing in the official documentation indicating that Johnston designed for The Passing Show. The signature lacks her trademark palette and brush flourish, which makes me think this design was early in her career. Perhaps it was submitted, but not chosen.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Showgirl in Passing Show .] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Showgirl in Passing Show.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

In 1940 Johnston was elected vice-president of the Theatrical Costume Designers Union, a division of the United Scenic Artists.  Yet, the drawing below is one of the few in the collection that actually carry the Union’s stamp.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Mabel E. Johnston. [Unidentified production.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. Mabel E. Johnston drawings.

Despite a prolific output during the 1920s, Johnston all but disappeared from Broadway theater after 1929. Her final Broadway credit is from the 1941 play My Fair Ladies where she served as costume supervisor, but her last Broadway job before that was in 1933.  She collaborated on costumes for Olga Baklanova and Bela Lugosi, stars of the musical Murder at the Vanities, in what was also her last design credit.  I haven’t found any evidence that she did work for movies, and aside from a few pageants and balls, she all but disappears professionally in the 1930s. Her alma mater in Philadelphia (now known as University of Arts) offers a scholarship in her name, supported by her bequest, but as of publishing deadline, I don’t have a death date for her. Again, I turn to you, dear reader, and ask that should you have any information on the life of Mabel E. Johnston, please email us at collections@mcny.org. Her gorgeous work deserves a longer story.

About Morgen Stevens-Garmon

Associate Curator, Theater Collection Museum of the City of New York

3 comments on “The mystery of Mabel E. Johnston, who drew beautiful costumes

  1. Susan Russell
    November 6, 2015

    Morgan,

    A few years ago, I found in a Provincetown “antique” shop, a nude study of a man which is attributed to Mabel E. Johnston. Might she have spent a summer in the artist’s colony? Another curiosity… If you are interested in knowing more, or seeing a photo of the drawing, feel free to contact me.

    • Morgen Stevens-Garmon
      November 11, 2015

      Susan,

      Thanks so much for reaching out to us. So much is unknown about her life, it is definitely possible she spent time in the artist’s colony. I will be getting in touch.

      Best,
      Morgen

  2. Pam Simon Gilly
    February 23, 2016

    Morgen- I am an antique dealer in PA and just came across a costume sketch signed Mabel E. Johnston. I can send photos if you are interested in seeing the image.

    Best,

    Pamela Simon-Gilly

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