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THIS SUGGESTION WAS uttered by Jacques (Jay-Qwees, pronounced Elizabethan fashion) in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act II Scene 7. He was referring to the patchwork of red, green, and blue traditionally worn by court jesters

Harlequin in motley attire, by Maurice Sand, 1671.

Fast Forward to the 20th-Century. Margaret (aka Percy) Harris, her sister Sophia, and friend Elizabeth Montgomery attended plays at the Old Vic Theatre and set up teaching theater design at the London Theatre Studio in 1936.

Martha Hartman says in “Designing Women,” Opera News, July 2021, “For their professional work, the trio chose to be credited simply as ‘Motley,’ perhaps taken from Jacques’s remark in As You Like It, ‘Motley’s the only wear.’ This was the name under which the women would design and teach for the next sixty years, both in partnership and individually.” 

Motley: Clockwise from left, Sophia Harris, her sister Margaret Harris, and Elizabeth Montegomery.

A Break With Tradition. Of traditional theater, Hartman observes, “Classic texts were being mercilessly cut to allow for lengthy scene changes necessitated by bulky, directly representational sets. Actors were hampered by heavy, oft-reused Edwardian costumes.”

Here are tidbits on the Motley Theatre Design Group gleaned from Hartman’s article and Wikipedia

Instead, the three women offered relative simplicity, with a unity of design and resources. Others leading the way in this trend were Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois.

Early Successes. Among early proponents of Motley’s works was actor John Gielgud, who invited them to design costumes for his directorial debut of Romeo and Juliet for the Oxford University Dramatic Society in 1932. 

Sixteen more Gielgud/Motley productions followed in the next three years. Gielgud’s London production of Richard of Bordeaux ran for eighteen months and was the first of Motley’s set designs as well as costumes.

A Motley costume for John Gielgud’s 1932 production of The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic.

The women’s West End studio in the 1930s occupied space once housing Thomas Chippendale’s furniture workshop. It became a gathering place for young actors of the time, including Alec Guinness, Jessica Tandy, and Robert Donat.

Hartman notes, “… the Motley creators began a custom of using cheap, unorthodox materials such as upholstery cloth, burlap and felt, which looked deceptively rich under stage lights.” 

A Transatlantic Partnership. With the advent of World War II, Margaret and Elizabeth sailed for New York; a newly married Sophia opting to stay in England. Margaret returned after the war, and the Motley transatlantic partnership would last for another 20 years.

A 1972 production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace had a huge cast. To minimize production costs, Motley experimented with projections to supplement scenery

As the New York branch, Elizabeth designed 79 productions on Broadway, at the American Shakespeare Festival, and for the Metropolitan Opera. She garnered two Tony Awards along the way.

Several Motley Opera productions. From top to bottom, costume sketch for the Met Simon Boccanegra, 1960; set design for the Sadler’s Wells Tannhäuser, 1959; costumes for the Met Trovatore, 1959.]

South Pacific. Hartman notes, “The costumes for South Pacific in particular caused a stir: Mary Martin’s denim shirt, makeshift newsprint skirts and oversized sailer suit proved so popular that Elizabeth designed ready-to-wear versions to be sold in shops.”

Motley Heritage. “As the twentieth century progressed,” Hartman observes, “the ideas that made Motley innovative in the 1930s became standard. They had influenced theater and opera, leading by example: Attention to text, clarity of purpose and the very concept of a unified production team would be their heritage.”

“Motley,” Hartman concludes, “had become a byword not only for stylish, thoughtful production design but for a rich tradition of collaborative, intelligent theater-making.”

I’m agreeing with Jay-Qwees. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021  

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