John Thomas Pratt

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John Thomas Pratt

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Melvin E. Pratt and Beryl M. Pratt
Husband of Katherine Dunham
Father of Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt (adopted)

Managed by: Private User
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About John Thomas Pratt

John Thomas Pratt was one of America's most renowned costume and theatrical set designers.

On July 10, 1939, John Thomas Pratt married Katherine Dunham, American dancer, choreographer, and company director as well as an author, educator, and social activist.

He was her artistic collaborator and managed her career for the next 47 years until his death. Pratt, who was white (inter-racial marriages were controversial at the time). They had one adopted daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt.

Katherine Dunham met Pratt when he was the supervisor of the costume department at the Federal Theater in New York. In an interview with Pratt in 1981, Vèvè A. Clark perfectly described his role with the Dunham Company as technical advisor and consulting director of the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research. Pratt described his designs for Miss Dunham as dynamic, and his main concern was that the costumes provided freedom of movement. Often working with a tight budget, Pratt created costumes by piecing together recycled material. Except for the three years during the mid-1940s that he served in the military, Pratt choreographed almost all of Dunham’s performances throughout her career. Miss Dunham admitted during the process of donating her collections to the Missouri Historical Society (Item History File) that she did not always appreciate the body of work that went into creating her costumes.

Pratt understood Miss Dunham better than any choreographer and designed her costumes with her movements in mind. She did learn to appreciate the efforts that Pratt made to enhance her image. In a further description of one of her more controversial performances (choreographed in 1938), Barrel House Blues, Miss Dunham talks about how the material was designed to move with her body while she performed the “shimmy":

"The “Barrel House” shimmy costume was notorious for its electric blue body shape with rings of jet black beads, graduating in length from a little over an inch at the throat of the dress to three inches at the bottom hemline. This was a great help in the steady half rotation, the first movement of the “twist,” being toe ending in a second movement, weight dropped to the heel, the strength of the “twist” would cause these circles of black jet beads to whirl halfway round, then stop with a jolt when shifting weight. This movement became, in my estimation, the source of Chubby Checker’s “Twist,” and the costume itself [was] designed by my husband, John Pratt, who designed practically all the costumes and scenery of our several shows for the company and myself".

In 1952, Dunham and Pratt adopted a four-year-old child, Marie-Christine, who was living in a Catholic convent in Paris. According to Joyce Aschenbrenner (an anthropologist and Dunham biographer), when Marie-Christine was old enough she traveled with the dance company, but returned to the convent to attend school. She was later enrolled in Swiss boarding schools and would join her parents on holidays and vacations.

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