Inside the world of Angels: the secret history of film & TV costumes

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All photographs copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted

The chill hits me and a slight tang of…meat. I’ve entered the Fur store room at Angels Costumiers. We stand in silence. There are racks of fur coats – like a multiverse of Narnia entry points. Fox stoles are piled high to the ceiling. Tim Angel, the 7th generation boss of a family firm is giving me a guided tour. “A lot of actors refuse to wear fur, of course,” he says, “but we feel we have to keep them”. And there is the dilemma and fascination for Angels – a family firm since the 1800s which just won a special BAFTA. There is a sense of keeping an essential archive of lived history and documenting changing social taste. But they’re also in the “what if?” business and so almost nothing is thrown away.

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Angels’ giant warehouse in North London, is a library of culture like nothing I’ve ever seen. Think of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with every treasure not boxed, but on open racks and rails so your eyes are bombarded with imagery. Exotic ethnic costumes from Bond films – African fabrics, Japanese samurai armour. History and fantasy before your eyes, racked up to infinity points in every direction.

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On the upper floor uniforms and helmets dominate. I glimpse an infinity of headless Michael Caines – thousands of ‘em in the distinctive red jackets that evoke Zulu. Alec Guiness’s Obi Wan Kenobi costume once got lost in the “brown monks” section of “religious” and been hired out of the fancy dress business that still operates from the big store on Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s West End. They are more careful now.

The fancy dress business is still going strong. Tim shows me the streamlined system packaging up and posting out online orders and not just for Halloween. “Young women aged 18-30 love dressing up and they buy costumes for their boyfriends,” he explains. “And they want to look sexy.” Hence the infinite variety of sexy witches and flapper girls. There’s a whole sociology thesis there.

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Back in the screen hire side, the uniforms continue: At first I mistake racks of maroon and green for military dress, but Tim points out they are the smart liveries of cinema doormen and cigarette girls: “When cinemas started they needed to build a sense that they were respectable places of entertainment.” Many of these Angels bought up in bulk lots as the film palaces died away in the 1960s. The transition through changing modes of entertainment goes back to 1840, when Morris Angel founded the firm. He spotted a demand from the growing world of theatre for actors for their own signature costumes as part of their marketability and with his son transformed the firm from a simple second hand clothes emporium to an essential part of the entertainment business. When cinema and later TV each in turn became the cutting edge of entertainment, Angels moved with the times, buying up or merging with rivals such as Berman’s. And when each entertainment world declines, it is here that their imagery survives; social history embodied in the livery of the long gone cinema houses and theatres and TV shows, waiting to be brought back to life. It is remarkably poignant.

It’s only when you go round that you appreciate how much of the skill of 0f the costumier is in seeing the re-use potential in racks of indistinguishable garments. In the workrooms upstairs where seamstresses sew, snip and steam away,  a French pale blue polyester 1960s traffic warden uniform is being transformed into a Pan Am stewardess with great success. The businessman in Tim is essential to the firm. Down one long aisle  racked 20 feet high I see nothing but grey padded jackets and trousers. These were made for the late 1930s Shanghai crowd scenes in Empire Of The Sun. Not long after Tim says the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves production came calling. “They didn’t have much money,” (what?)  “so I came up with the idea of reusing the trousers to make a uniform for the Sherriff of Nottingham’s men.” Nice one Tim.

At the far end of the aisle my eye is caught by striped pyjamas. They are red and grey. From Papillon. I am impressed that Tim has even visited Devil’s Island. But I catch my breath at the identical stacks right next to them Identical but for the blue stripe; and the occasional stitched on yellow patch or star. Angels founded by a Jewish family that came to London from Frankfurt, costumed Schindler’s List. “They’re obviously costumes, but they are accurate,” Tim tells me. “The people making The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas said they wanted to change the design. But we said this is the accurate uniform.” When Tim went on a prospective buying visit to the old UFA studios in Potsdam after the Wall came down he was horrified to be shown a room full of real concentration camp uniforms and immaculate 1930s children’s clothes, each piece stamped with a swastika. All those decades that the East German film industry had just kept them without a thought. It is another moment to stand in silence.

I stop Tim by the LE racks – LE Light Entertainment – a whole costume department the BBC controversially sold off in the 1990s. I am glad to find it’s safe at Angels. “We don’t really know if this will ever be wanted again,” observes Tim, “but I feel it’s important to keep it.” There are strange pantomime costumes worn on shows like The Generation Game, Kenny Everett and Russ Abbott. I even spy what looks like an It’s A Knock Out “giant” costume in a back shelf like a felled Titan. Tim and I muse on how space fantasy has changed. Angels outfitted Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. Tim costumed Blake’s 7, remarking on how SF in the 70s and 80s tried to be bold and exotic, where now it tries to look gritty and realistic.

Everywhere I spot wheeled trolley rails with special orange labels, where costume designers are pulling together looks, as if in a supermarket, for major film productions.

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A huge part of the ground floor is racked up with tea dresses and suits from the 1930s to 1950s; a period much in demand right now in drama commissioning. Everything is organised by decade. There is a whole floor of military and police uniforms – many of them authentic; like a history of empires. The racks of riot shields and batons genuinely unnerve me, like I’ve wandered into the locker room of a 70s future dystopian thriller like Conquest of The Planet of the Apes. Tim reckons they have wearable pieces going back to about 1911 and worries about how long they will last. In the 1970s the custom was to make new copies of old outfits for shows such as Upstairs Downstairs, whereas now the parallel likes of Downton Abbey want authentic, original pieces. We pass a member of staff sorting through a bin of dozens of  stiff white collars for Edwardian gentlemen’s dinner suits.  All original. They have so many of everything, but they need them as many of these objects aren’t made any more. And there’s another challenge still, as time passes, Tim remarks: “There are only about 2 places left in the whole of the country that still do the starching they need.”

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Finally there is a room marked “Principals” – a kind of sanctum for special pieces. A plum velvet Victorian smoking jacket catches my eye in amidst hundreds of suits. I have a gut feeling… It is. It’s Peter Cushing’s from a Hammer horror; The Creeping Flesh. I smile, and I put it back. Tim has to get back to work too, with a rack of “to sort” items waiting for him to decide their fate: Peter O’ Toole’s green waistcoat from Bright Young Things, stained Bullingdon Club coats from The Riot Club. Before I go I can’t resist asking Tim what were his favourite places as a young child visiting his dad, when the business was all run from Shaftesbury Avenue? “Actually,” he admits, “when I was 7, I loved nothing more than playing in the lifts.”

I step out into suburban London, knowing that within these vaults a treasure of culture is quietly, silently resting.

This is a longer version of an article that first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – Journalism worth paying for. On sale from street vendors or subscriptions available at this link

My thanks to Tim Angel and all the team at Angels Costumiers for their time. 

Behind the scenes at Angels – Listen to my Front Row special feature here (Feb 2016)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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