Backstage: All the best productions have been touched by an Angel

Angels costumier
Eight and a half miles: new staff spend their first few months returning costumes that have been hired to their original racks
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“These rooms have been flat out, absolutely crazy.” Jeremy Angel, the seventh generation of the Angels clan to be involved in the renowned costume house, is showing me around the company’s headquarters in Hendon, north London. It’s so busy right now because as well as making police uniforms for an upcoming TV drama, remaking a jacket for a singer at the New York Metropolitan Opera who, it turns out, is allergic to wool, and doing repairs to costumes for the fancy dress hire side of the business, Angels’ seamstresses and tailors are recreating historic and iconic pieces for a new exhibition telling the story of the company.

Many of the costumes due to appear in Dressed by Angels, which opens at the Old Truman Brewery in London on October 2, have been plucked from the eight and half miles of clothes rails at the warehouse, but plenty have had to be remade from the patterns, their originals having been damaged, gone walkabout or been auctioned off. A cloak from Wicked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s tails from Titanic and Glenda Jackson’s Cleopatra costume from the Morecambe and Wise Show are among the treasures to be found draped over dummies on the day of my visit.

For television and film, sets of costumes are selected and put together on racks
For television and film, sets of costumes are selected and put together on racks

The exhibition marks 175 years since Daniel Angel, a tailor who came to London from Frankfurt at the beginning of the 19th century, and his son, Morris, set up a shop selling second-hand clothes in Seven Dials. Conveniently located for the area’s theatres, it soon became popular with actors, most of whom had to provide their own costumes for modern-dress roles in those days. Anyone who didn’t want to buy their costumes hired them, and the Angel family has never looked back, expanding into the worlds of film and television as those industries offered further opportunities for growth.

By the time Tim Angel, the company’s chairman (and father to Jeremy), joined the business in the 1960s, Angels was a major player in all three media. The recent rise of the new generation of content creators – the likes of Netflix and Amazon – has transformed things all over again.

“We’ve seen a huge expansion in what we’re doing in the volume of [television] work,” says Tim. “Netflix is making its own product, Amazon is making its own product, HBO is making its own product, Sky is making its own product, so you’ve got four new product providers.” And all working on a scale the likes of which has rarely been seen in television before now. “House of Cards was a tiny British television programme and then Netflix gets at it…”. He tails off – enough said.

It’s not just the clients that have changed. Costume itself has undergone a radical transformation, explains the chairman, referencing leading figures such as Peter Shepherd and Shirley Russell, designers who pioneered the use of “real clothes, not costume” in the 1970s. “[Before that,] costume in theatre very much aped the period it was in. So if it was in Victorian times and you were doing Elizabethan plays the clothes would actually now look Victorian, not Elizabethan.”

These developments notwithstanding, “the way we make hasn’t changed. Drafting a pattern, alterations, they’re old-fashioned skills,” says Tim. The process of putting together a set of costumes from the racks – more common in film and television than theatre, in which costumes are still largely made from scratch – isn’t much different either. Angels’ collection of one to two million items isn’t digitised (they’re designing a computer system at the moment), so everything is still done by hand and from memory. New staff, Jeremy explains, during my whirlwind tour of the 160,000 sq ft premises, spend the first few months on the job just putting returned hires back into the racks.

Angels’ theatrical costumes are usually made from scratch
Angels’ theatrical costumes are usually made from scratch

It’s how they’ve done it for as long as anyone can remember, but there’s been a significant shift in careers in the costume business since Tim’s own time on the warehouse floor. Finding the right people for the job – the costumiers, those building outfits from stock, in particular – is proving tricky.

“The difference is that people go to art school now and a lot of the colleges don’t actually teach the skill sets that are needed in 2015,” Tim says. Angels set up an apprenticeship scheme in 2011 and has since gone on to employ several of the young people to come up through it full-time.

Even so, “getting that continuity” is a challenge, says Tim. “People don’t want to stay in a job. They’ll do a job for four or five years, or they’ll finish their apprenticeships, stay for a year and then bugger off into the wider world, and good luck to them.”

The training issue is important not only because the business depends on talented staff to continue operating at the top of its game but also because of the unique position that Angels occupies in the costume world, custodians of an extraordinary history of live and recorded performance, having bought out the collections of almost all its competitors over the decades, from fellow Victorian costumier Nathan’s to the BBC costume department.

“That this company has survived seven generations is amazing. That out of all the old costumiers that were around in London in Victorian days, be it Nathan’s, Fox’s, Simmons, Clarkson’s, whoever they were, we’re the only one left. The artefacts and things here represent nearly 200 years of English theatre, the last 100 or so years of film and the last 80 years of television,” says Tim, with a smile. “It’s quite remarkable.”

Dressed by Angels: 175 Years of Costumes is at the Old Truman Brewery, London, from October 2. Behind the Seams, a book about the company, is published on October 15

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