Alec Shanks: Unheralded Art Deco Director & Costume Designer

This week we shone a spotlight on one of Paperblanks’ newest releases, the Vintage Vogue collection, and so we wanted to take the opportunity to look closer at Alec Shanks, the artist behind “Nuits de Folies,” the basis for the collection’s “Plume” design. The image comes out of – and, indeed, it evokes – the world of famed 1920’s and 1930’s Parisian cabarets and the art deco style that was so popular at the time. It’s unfortunate that the costume and set designers who created the look and feel of that world have gone largely unheralded. Alec Shanks was one such designer.

Shanks began his career in Birmingham helping produce scenery for the Theatre Royal, but soon felt a move to Paris would allow him more opportunities and a better chance of making a name for himself as a scene designer. He moved to Paris in 1928 and by the early thirties he was one of the top designers in his field in Paris.

Shanks made a name for himself at the Folies Bergère, a Parisian music hall that became notorious for being the first theatre in the world to feature a fully-nude woman on stage. Working at the Folies Bergère Shanks got to work alongside other famous designers like Russian Erté and José de Zamora, and he had the opportunity to participate in giving the famed hall its new look in the early thirties. He was also commissioned in 1929 to redecorate another famed music hall, the Moulin Rouge.

The Folies Bergère was also the hall where he created the design used as the basis for Paperblanks’ Vintage Vogue collection’s Plume design. The image was the program cover for a revue called “Nuits de Folies”:

After making a name for himself in Paris, Shanks moved back to Britain again, and specifically worked in the West End of London’s theater scene.

Here’s an interesting anecdote from The Music Hall and Theatre History Site about Alec Shanks’ time in the West End and specifically how notorious he was at going over-budget on his productions:

“[Jimmy Brennan] hired Alec Shanks the West End director and costume designer to produce the [Feldman’s Theatre’s] first summer show. Alec was not good at keeping to budgets and was always looking for an opportunity to put more of his costumes into the show and design more scenery. The show was in rehearsal and we were all at lunch in Hills. Jack asked him how things were going. Jimmy said the show was too expensive all that tar was costing too much money. Jack, puzzled, asked him what he meant. Jimmy replied that every morning Alec Shanks came into the theatre and wanted something else and when he was told it was too expensive, back would come the reply ‘Don’t spoil the ship for a half penny worth of tar’. Thus the extra tar was costing a fortune. That was a story that went around the theatres for many years.”

Check out a collection of some of Shanks’ work below.

“Design for the Tableau Cree in Les Masques, with a showgirl”

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Set design of a Middle Eastern street corner

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Design for a showgirl wearing an elaborate topless golden costume

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“Les Belles Pyjamas” costume design

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“Design for the Queen of Clubs”

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“Modern Woman” costume design

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About Paperblanks®: We have been producing superb writing journals for twenty years. We are book people, and we believe that the written word matters and that our blank books have a critical role to play in the art and continued practice of writing itself. For more about Paperblanks®, go to our website at paperblanks.com.

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