Gordon Conway, artist, only child of John Catlett and Tommie (Johnson) Conway, was born at Cleburne, Texas, on December 18, 1894. Her father descended from colonial and revolutionary era patriots in Tidewater Virginia that included a collateral ancestral line from the mother of President James Madison. After the Civil War he moved to Texas, where he succeeded in business, became an active Episcopal layman, and served as mayor of Cleburne. Around 1900 the family moved to Dallas, where he expanded his chain of lumberyards, established lumber firms in Dallas and Fort Worth, and became a well-known civic and social leader before his death in 1906. His daughter, Gordon, the last of the family line, had no children from a seven-year marriage to businessman Blake Ozias that ended in divorce in France in 1927. Gordon Conway's mother also descended from early American leaders, including the Samuel Adams family of Massachusetts and Joseph Johnson, the first Virginia governor elected by a vote of the people. One Johnson line later moved to Texas and settled in Whitesboro, Paris, and Cleburne. Tommie Johnson Conway established the pattern of a glamorous, nomadic lifestyle that included sporadic educational efforts for Gordon at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., a Lausanne girls' school, and brief art lessons in Rome. She was a champion of her daughter's career and her lifelong companion.
During a brief but prolific twenty-two-year career (1915–37), Gordon Conway won international acclaim in the fields of commercial graphic art and costume design for stage and film in New York, London, and Paris. She made around 5,000 finished drawings, including illustrations for at least 26 publications and 33 advertising clients. With assignments ranging from one to 80 costumes per show, she designed graphics and costumes for at least 119 stage productions for both theater and cabaret. She costumed 47 films. Conway helped democratize Parisian haute couture and popularize the severe elements of modern design. Starting out during the golden age of American illustration, she was a self-taught, free-lance artist who worked without apprentices and models. A significant but often overlooked aspect of her career-and rare for women of the era-was Conway's ability to create a popular public persona, which expanded her network of clients. She was in the vanguard of the new business enterprises of advertising and public relations at the beginning of the twentieth century.
She excelled in several genres best reviewed in two stages: her New York period (1915–20) and her European period (1921–36). Highlights of her New York period included silhouette art for mass print media and color billboards, posters, and promotional graphics touting Broadway theater and cabaret productions. She was a spirited and determined twenty-year-old in 1915 when she launched her career at Vogue and Vanity Fair. Recognizing her native talent, Heyworth Campbell-publisher Condé Nast's first art director-insisted that Conway forget academic art school. He urged her to take classes at the Art Students League and to study magazine and advertising illustration with tutors. Campbell joined another Conway mentor, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, in helping her establish a popular public image. These editors also marshaled her innate flair for whimsy and parody by commissioning covers and narrative vignette pages spoofing New York society girls involved in World War I charity work. Also publishing Conway's drawings of bright young sophisticates was Condé Nast rival Harper's Bazaar, whose editor, Henry B. Sell, encouraged Conway's talent and introduced her to the art work of their new cover artist, Erté. These successes led to other publications and diverse advertising clients such as the Delage and the Franklin motor car companies, Huylers chocolates, Neiman-Marcus, and Hallmark watches. The National City Company (New York) commissioned a series of her posters for a nationwide advertising campaign to attract women as securities investors.
Conway's stage collaboration represents some of the best talent in theater and cabaret production in New York, including Broadway clients Cohan and Harris, Comstock and Gest, Hitchcock and Goetz, the Selwyns, the Shuberts, Robert Milton, and Ned Wayburn. In 1916 her first stage assignment for the new cabaret field glamorized exhibition dancers in silhouette illustrations for newspaper advertisements, window cards, menus, and wine lists. This led to jobs including costumes and graphics for cabaret shows at such venues as the Palais Royal (1920), starring Conway's friend and most frequent client, Dorothy Dickson, and dance partner-husband Carl Hyson. Conway's first musical in 1917, for which she designed costumes and graphics for Raymond Hitchcock and E. Ray Goetz, led to silhouette illustrations for theater reportage in the New York Times, the Selwyn Theatre's program cover and page designs, and graphics for such acclaimed plays as Tea for Three (1918) and Listen Lester (1919). Conway's lively, colorful billboards and posters attracted a spectator following. These posters promoted such seminal musical comedy productions as Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918), which was ordered by F. Ray Comstock and the Princess Theatre team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton, and P. G. Wodehouse, who are credited with defining the American musical comedy. Conway's professional aspirations materialized in 1920 when she was hired to create a total design concept for the stage. She coordinated the visual images through costuming and graphics for Alice Duer Miller's The Charm School, directed by Robert Milton with music by Jerome Kern. Recognizing the artist's multifaceted talent, and capturing the essence of her public image, Vanity Fair labeled Conway "the soul of versatility."
Conway married in 1920 and moved to Europe because of her husband's business ventures. Her European period was distinguished by magazine cover and color illustration and consumer advertising art as well as costume design and poster art for theater, cabaret, and film. She advanced her career in London and Paris, in spite of six years of inconvenient moves back and forth across the English Channel due to Ozias's jobs. These frequent relocations added stress to her professional life. From 1923 to 1931, when film work eclipsed print and stage orders, Conway illustrated for the "Great Eight" magazine consortium in London. Championed by editor Peter Edward Huskinson, she produced scores of illustrations and original fashion-design pages, especially for The Tatler and Eve: The Lady's Pictorial, which featured more than thirty of her color covers. British advertising clients included the department stores of Harrods, Debenham and Freebody, and Selfridges. In her Paris studio, Conway received the prestigious job of interpreting various Parisian couture collections and offering her original designs for La Donna, an Italian women's magazine in Milan.
Between 1922 and 1928 she produced such cabaret art as her coordinated concept for costumes, sets, and graphics for the Club Daunou Midnight Follies in Paris, and occasional designs for the Casino de Paris. On the forefront of the London cabaret craze, she created costumes and graphics for most editions of Carl Hyson's Midnight Follies at London's Hotel Metropole and other venues. As the major designer for British cabaret legend Percy Athos, Conway made some of her most exotic and erotic costumes and sparkling graphic designs as part of her unified design scheme for his New Princes' Frivolities.
London theater commissions expanded between 1921 and 1931 with stage producers Charles B. Cochran, Dion Titheradge, Bertie A. Meyer, Albert de Courville, and such transatlantic talent as Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, and for megastars the Dolly Sisters. She costumed mid-1920s Broadway musical productions in London such as George and Ira Gershwin's Tip-Toes and Rodgers and Hart's Peggy-Ann, as well as the 1924 all-British musical Patricia and Wonder Bar in 1930. These four popular shows, among others, starred Dorothy Dickson, who was at the time the toast of West End musical comedy. After the ambitious 1930 Charlot's Masquerade, featuring scene sets and elegant costumes, Conway's last noteworthy stage production was the 1934 Why Not To-night?, choreographed by the young Agnes de Mille. These shows drew rave reviews for her promotional graphics and striking costume ensembles.
In 1927, during major print-media and stage offerings in London, where she and her mother now lived, Conway began free-lance silent-film work for Confetti, directed by Graham Cutts. Cutts joined with directors Victor Saville, Walter Forde, and Maurice Elvey, writer Douglas Furber, cameraman Roy Overbaugh, publicist W. J. "Bill" O'Bryen, and production-manager Chandos Balcon, in encouraging Conway's ambitions beyond costuming, in such areas as art direction, lighting, casting, and marketing. Her futuristic costuming for High Treason won acclaim in 1929, the same year that Cutts hired her for another hit, The Return of the Rat. He told the press that "dresses worn by British film actresses have often been criticized by cinema-goers...[so he] determined that this reproach shall not be levelled against his cast." A longtime advocate of "better-dressed British films," Conway added: "I hope to see every studio with its own designer and dressmaking staff, as they have in Hollywood."
Until 1934, when illness limited her commissions to print and stage art, other Conway movie collaborators included Tom Walls, Tim Whelan, Basil Dean, and the young Michael Powell. In addition to Dorothy Dickson, Dickson's daughter Dorothy Hyson, and Jessie Matthews, other noted film and stage stars she dressed included Cicely Courtneidge, Edna Best, Heather Thatcher, Annette Benson, and Evelyn Laye, as well as stars who later moved to Hollywood-Benita Hume, Madeleine Carroll, Wendy Barrie, and Anne Grey. Conway also was heralded for costuming such early-1930s British film classics as Sunshine Susie, The Faithful Heart, Jack's the Boy, Love on Wheels, Rome Express, The Good Companions, Waltz Time, It's a Boy, The Ghoul, I Was A Spy, The Fire Raisers, A Cuckoo in the Nest, Friday the 13th, Aunt Sally, The Constant Nymph, and Red Ensign.
Conway's early successes were for Gainsborough studios, a part of the newly reorganized Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, which contracted and elevated her to executive "Dress Designer." Determined to compete with Hollywood's global domination, the company pushed hard to increase production that included Conway's remarkable record of twelve feature films released in 1932, followed by nineteen in 1933. She was the only woman member of the hard-working executive team, headed by British-film pioneer and producer Michael Balcon. She worked ten-hour days, seven days a week, on a hectic schedule with debilitating deadlines and delays, on a meager budget, and in inadequate facilities that caused her to move her design studio and fitting area into her Bryanston Court flat. In this grinding atmosphere, she took full responsibility for her mother and their active social life. The bright spots in her professional life were close relationships with friends and colleagues, especially her tiny but talented and dedicated staff-including the young Margaret Furse-along with artisans at the London stores executing her designs. Because of Conway's vision and flair for marketing, the already demanding design and management job mushroomed to include media relations and promotional schemes to increase female audiences that yearned to emulate the new roles of professional women on the screen. Press coverage likewise singled out Conway herself as an example for aspiring professional women. Typical headlines proclaimed that she was "A Woman Prophet Of Film Fashion [in the] New Post In British Films," and one of the "Film Stars who Never Act."
Gordon Conway had the distinction of serving as the head of the first autonomous wardrobe department in the history of British film, and one of the rare female film-production executives in the world at that time. Her professional rewards, however, came at a high price, for she was like contemporaneous Hollywood image-makers who had brilliant but limited film careers due to stress and ill health. Even with big Hollywood salaries and lavish studio ateliers, famed designers like Texas-born Travis Banton suffered from deeply felt clashes of taste with actresses and management, and from the pressure to compromise aesthetic judgment and produce showy, extravagant, and commercial images at a maddening pace. Conway agreed with most film-design pioneers that costuming was a device to delineate a character's role on the screen, as well as a screen-viewer's guide to women's dress. Such designers' efforts should be viewed in historical perspective: an Academy Award for costume art was not established until 1948.
Throughout her career Gordon Conway worked long, arduous hours to become a respected and highly paid illustrator and costume designer. This was a rare accomplishment for a woman in these competitive fields not known for exceptional pay. After financial reversals due to the Great Depression, she doubled her efforts as a shrewd financial manager and increased commissions to maintain the sophisticated lifestyle she shared with her mother. However, her high-profile, demanding career led to ill health that forced her into early retirement in 1937, at forty-three years of age. Her return to New York also was occasioned by events leading to World War II. Conway lived the last two decades of her life at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth-century property inherited from her father's family. She earned a modest living by managing the place and became a pioneer in historic preservation by restoring the house and protecting the land and neighboring landmarks from a military-base expansion. She died on June 9, 1956, after years of painful malignancies. She is buried alongside her parents and maternal grandmother in the Oakland Cemetery in Dallas.
Credited early in her career as a major image-maker, Conway captured the essence of a popular type of woman that emerged during World War I in urban areas and consumer centers on both sides of the Atlantic. Her images portrayed tall, sleek, svelte, agile, sophisticated, independent, and self-assured women like Conway herself, who was the quintessential New Woman extoled in upscale publications, consumer advertisements, and female roles showcased in musical-comedy, cabaret, and motion-picture productions. Conway's New Women are young, red-headed females of two kinds: the whimsical, playful, supple imp, and the alluring, sensual, graceful cosmopolite. Her images both reflected and shaped the aspirations of millions of women yearning for economic, political, physical, sexual, social, and cultural freedom before and after legislation awarding suffrage and property rights to women in the United States and Great Britain. Gordon Conway's drawings feature striking, streamlined, and sleek lines that highlight uncluttered forms in an asymmetrical balance enlivened by bold, vivid, and flat color combinations. Even her early Art Nouveau-inspired drawings from the mid-teens feature controlled curvilinear and organic lines, before graduating into her signature geometric, rectilinear, and austere style. In addition to vibrant colors, another strength of Conway's art is the presentation of motion by her figures. The interplay of shapes displays a disciplined and stylized expression of compressed power and energy. In 1928 she explained the central focus of her style: "My experience...has served to strengthen my conviction that the most telling and striking effects are usually secured by carefully studied simplicity." Articles by Gordon Conway include "Fashions from the Films," Picture Show, April 28, 1928; "Dressing the Talkies," The Film Weekly, September 2, 1929; and "Frocks for Films," The Bioscope British Film Number, 1929. Gordon Conway's art recalls the spirit of an age. Her New-Woman images capture the essence of the Jazz Age, as well as a popular feminine look defined by a sensual but naive charm. Both her life and work reflect the era between the world wars, which honored vitality, experimentation, light-hearted rebellion, exuberance, optimism, hope, and most of all, possibilities.