Angels_Costume warehouse overhead_Image copyright Clothes on Film-1 © 2012 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

Behind the Scenes: Angels the Costumiers

A few weeks ago, Clothes on Film were invited to spend a day at Angels the costumiers. We had a private tour of their hire warehouse, watched tailors and dressmakers at work, then interviewed creative manager Jeremy Angel, son of Chairman Tim Angel about how the business is structured and their plans for future. What we discovered was illuminating. More than just a rental shop for film, theatre and television costume, Angels also provide inspiration to the fashion industry.

Angels was established by Morris Angel in the Seven Dials region of London as a used clothing store in 1840, essentially selling tailors’ samples and excess stock. Soon the store relocated to Shaftesbury Avenue where it became a popular haven for actors to rent costumes. By the time the movie industry took hold at the turn of the century, Angels had already established itself as the go-to establishment for garment hire, tailoring and alterations. In 1992, the company relocated again, this time to Camden after acquiring their main rival Berman’s and Nathan’s. The Shaftesbury Avenue store became a fancy dress rental shop that still exists today. In 2002, Angels moved to a purpose built site in Hendon housing their entire costume hire and garment making facilities.

Main entrance to Angels’ Hendon offices. The costume warehouse is connected, just a short away.

Alterations to clothing from the warehouse are usually carried out by Angels. This does not just entail period frocks and suits but contemporary costumes such as police uniforms and military regalia.

At present Angels is in its sixth generation as a family owned and run business. Virtually everyone that works at the Hendon site has been employed by Angels for several years. Indeed our tour was conducted by Mark Rhodes who started out in the military department a quarter of a century ago. As Jeremy Angel pointed out during our interview, “At Angels a job title doesn’t really mean anything. I have a brother and a sister who work here, I have my mum, my uncle, my aunt; plus the family dogs live here!

Something Clothes on Film were keen to ascertain is exactly how this side of the business works; is there ever such thing as a typical movie production? Any possibility of a typical movie request to Angels was laughed off by Mark, but for argument’s sake this is how it could, and often does, pan out:

A costume designer will approach Angels with his/her request, be it half dozen Australian Light Horse uniforms from World War I or three box jackets from the early 1980s. There will be discussion on colour, condition, fabric, timescale and budget, what is essential and what can be negotiated. Then they will go to the rails. There are 8.8 miles of costume rails housed at Angels, so chances are what someone wants will be there. If not, costumes need to be created according to specification from the ground up.

Angels employ an in-house team of dressmakers and tailors. For larger scale projects, freelancers are contracted..

Actors’ measurements are a closely guarded secret. You will not find any lying around (we looked).

Presuming suitable garments can be found, however, any necessary alterations will usually be undertaken in-house. Sometimes multiples are required, in which case compromises might need to be made. For example, if a production needs five white lounge suits, single breasted, from the 1970s but Angels only has five cream suits, a costume designer must decide if he/she can change their original brief. Can the suits be dyed? Not if they are polyester. Maybe the director needs to be consulted? But can they afford a delay? There is a constant back and forth between all parties.

Finer details need to be considered too. Maybe a costume designer is searching for late Victorian children’s wear? As such they may have a look at a production Angels recently provided for that is still on display in the warehouse. Do they want more poor? Less poor? Do the garments have to be 100% era specific? Also tone and genre needs to be considered. A grim thriller set during the late 1800s in the East End of London is going to require different clothing to a stage show with singing street urchins.

For most costume designers the first port of call will be to check the hire warehouse. What cannot be sourced or altered will need to be made from scratch.

The medals, badges and pins room – mainly for military costume.

Depending on the availability and calibre of a lead performer, he/she will either visit Angels for fitting or their measurements sent ahead, with any additional modifications completed on set. Angels provided some of Consolata Boyle’s costumes for The Iron Lady (2011), but Meryl Streep did not come for a fitting. Measurements are obviously a closely guarded secret at the site. We were watched intently during our tour, though not hounded, presumably in case any measurements from prominent actors were currently in use by tailors or dressmakers.

Angels have contributed toward many high profile feature films. As widely reported, four of 2012’s Best Costume Design Oscar nominations came in some capacity from Angels (Hugo, Jane Eyre, Anonymous, W.E.). Often Angels will not make all of the costumes for a particular production. For example they supplied garments for Penny Rose on the Pirates of the Caribbean films but the fabric for Jack Sparrow’s coat was actually sourced at their rival, Cosprop. This is why there is no typical production. Different costume designers have different requirements and will go wherever they need to see them met.

An overhead view of over 8 miles of rails in the costume warehouse. These are four deep too, so stepladders are scattered about everywhere. Not that most garments are not in dust jackets.

The costumes are protected from fire by a network of water pipes running across the ceiling.

How costumes are returned to Angels is something Jeremy was empathetic about: you damage them, you get billed. “We did the costumes for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” he recalled. “I went to see it being filmed with my dad, and the costumes looked great. Well, we were walking round the costume tent and my dad’s face dropped. There was a table with the people in the costume department, cheese grating the costumes! They could see my dad’s face. They said “Oh no, they’re not yours’. We bought extra costumes for this.” I’ll never forget my dad’s face walking into the tent and watching them distress his costumes. But anything that looks like that from us is booked out like that.

Moreover, little concession is made whether you are making a low budget drama or another Ben-Hur, although Jeremy admits “If you’re a huge production taking a million items versus a production taking a hundred items then you have far more room to negotiate”. At one point during our tour we happened upon a cabinet of something called ‘Pure Dirt’, Angels own product line which is basically synthetic mud, blood or grass (liquid form) used to dye fabric but can be washed out easily. For Jeremy this provides safety for costumes and an additional sales opportunity:

Providing we can wash it (stains) out, that’s ok. If it’s torn you’re looking at repair costs or replacement costs. Nothing is cleaned before it is returned; there is no point. Anything that comes back we will send off to be cleaned and make sure, that’s the same for every production.

One of several racks in the (real) fur room. The environment is chilled to prevent moths.

The fur room is not always savoury as these fox head stoles demonstrate only too well.

Some of the larger scale projects Angels has been involved in are displayed at their premises, just outside the main offices: Anonymous, Jane Eyre, War Horse, The Iron Lady – the latter featured one version of Margaret Thatcher’s royal blue suit that was not actually worn by Streep but briefly glimpsed hanging in her character’s wardrobe. It was fully finished and lined then pinned onto a mannequin. In fact any suggestion that a garment would be unfinished because it is not intended to be worn was refuted by Mark Rhodes. “What would be the point in that?” he responded quizzically.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was actually referred to as ‘Dartmoor’ during production. We found a rack of muddy officers’ uniforms waiting to be processed in the warehouse (unfortunately, again, we were not allowed to take a photograph). These War Horse uniforms were held under embargo until very recently. This means the client paid for the garments to stay out of rotation, ensuring they were not seen on screen before the film was released. This point leads to another issue we were eager to address with Jeremy, regarding recent press coverage for Downton Abbey (certain garments provided by Angels) where costume designer Susannah Buxton was accused of ‘re-using’ clothing from previous productions.

I don’t see how you can chastise a costume designer for seeing a costume in a warehouse and thinking ‘That looks great and I want it on my set’” Jeremy argued. “Is a costume designer going to be pulling costumes and thinking ‘Hold on, wasn’t that in Mrs Henderson Presents?’ Which wasn’t a huge film but some people would have seen it. If you’ve got a costume that’s been rented out for a film and brought back, unless you have paid to have it embargoed it will go back into our stock, so someone else may come along and use it. Costumes can get reused before the original film is even seen.

Victorian family costume on display before being returned to the rails.

Costumes are organised by period, style and colour.

Not to mention that costumes rarely appear in exactly the same way twice, Buxton’s work for Downton Abbey being a prime example. They are re-shaped, appliqué added, appliqué removed, dipped or dyed a completely different colour. Nonetheless, perhaps this scrutiny is a positive thing? “At least it’s got people interested in period again, so they are much more observant of costume” considered Jeremy. “And let’s say you’ve got a thousand costumes in London that are 1920s; you are going to get some overlap somewhere.

In addition to costume for film, television and stage, Angels have worked with a number of high profile fashion houses (“I will not name any because it’s not fair”) that use clothes and hats for inspiration. This is not one or two items either but several rails. The mix is period and uniform, with the former proving especially popular at present.

Fashion houses will sometimes use us to see what a 1950s jacket would have looked like,” explained Jeremy “while others just change the fabric and tweak it a little bit; that’s their prerogative. Some send huge teams; some just send a few people. They will go through the racks looking for loads of reference, they will take maybe three or four rails, they will then send it off to their designers who will keep it for a good 8-10 weeks, and then they send it all back.

Costumes worn by prominent actors or designer clothing is kept in a separate room. Incidentally, the former is still used. If not actually hired out, it can still be used for reference by tailors and dressmakers.

Late 1930s style blue dress worn by Judi Dench in Mrs Henderson Presents (filmed in 2004).

We were curious as to how this idea translates literally onto the high street, so Jeremy provided a telling example. “We were out at a family dinner a couple of years ago, and one of my cousin’s friends turned up wearing a lovely denim jacket. My dad asked “Where did you get that?” and she said “Los Angeles” and he asked specifically “What shop?” because it looked so familiar. He went back into work after the weekend, looked up that particular fashion house and found that just over a year ago they had taken a uniform from the military department and changed the fabric. From black cotton they’d changed it to denim and moved a few things around.

Assuming this is a common undertaking, it sparks an interesting debate as to what constitutes inspiration and what is essentially copying. Although with all clothing descended from somewhere, usually sports or military uniform, maybe we should not be surprised that the world of fashion occasionally delves into its own archives. Consider too that during the late 1980s one of the most influential designers and couturiers of modern times, Alexander McQueen, worked at Angels in the tailoring department.

Angels holds a stock of armour but does not have the metalwork facilities to construct it in-house. They tend to purchase from auction. The chain mail tunics we held were incredibly heavy – easily 10kg, although sometimes costume can be deceptive. This helmet, for example…

… This helmet was actually created from rubber. Obviously it is more comfortable to wear for extended periods and, for background extras at least, difficult to spot as ‘phony’.

For Angels to survive and thrive as it has done for 172 years, the company needed to diversify. This is why expanding into the fashion market made perfect sense. Angels’ hire warehouse is surprisingly accessible; straightforward enough for anyone with limited period knowledge to navigate. Stock is organised by decade, stretching back to Elizabethan style costume which is then separated again into specific eras (post-Tudor, Renaissance, etc), by garment type and then by colour. Real fur is kept away from the main stock in a lightly chilled room. The warehouse is temperature controlled which varies subtly throughout the day. Obviously the risk of fire is a constant worry – Angels already suffered a blaze at their Shaftesbury Avenue facility in 1989 – so a network of pipes channel water across the ceiling ready to douse the entire site in seconds.

Our visit to Angels was an eye-opening experience. We would prefer to have delved a little deeper and chatted to the dressmaking and tailoring staff without a chaperone, but considering the amount of stock and secretive nature of the business, keeping tabs on our presence was understandable. Further to this idea, Jeremy admits that in-house theft does happen, but not often. “There are certain pieces that have been auctioned over the years that have got Angels or Bermans and Nathans labels in them which we have never seen. A lot of Superman costumes that went on auction 20 years ago; hardly anybody knew we had them, but they must have gotten them at some point.

Shoe multiples are stored in the same way as hats. These 1940s women’s lace ups were available in several colours.

Angels also provide accessories such as hats, jewellery, walking sticks and umbrellas.

Angels actually held their own rummage sales in 2008 (uniform and military), 2009 (general vintage) and 2010 (1950s-90’s), clearing 250,000 items from the rails. Being as these events were so successful, largely with those looking for a designer name bargain Jeremy believes; it is entirely possible another will happen in the near future. “It’s great, but it takes an awful lot of man-power to do” he admitted.

Furthermore with so many costumes in Angels’ vast warehouse it stands to reason that anyone could chance upon a golden movie find. This famously occurred in 2005 with a chance unearthing of Obi-Wan’s brown cloak from Star Wars (originally made by Berman’s). This must be the most fun part of Angels. Even those who have worked for the company for twenty years do not know every item on every rail. Our eyes glazed over at Bob Hoskins and Judy Dench name tags sewn into dresses and suits. We can only wonder at what other undiscovered gems might be lurking out there.

With thanks to everyone at Angels, especially Mark Rhodes and Jeremy Angel. Tours of Angels are available to book twice a month.

© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

  • Katie Boyer Clark

    I rarely read one of your articles/posts without a sudden thrill and the thought that If I could have created a blog that was completely for me, this would be it. I love the idea of movie reviews based on the costumes, and you do it perfectly. There have been several movies that I have watched and loved based on your reviews, and I would never have looked for them otherwise.
    Thanks so much for what you do.

  • textilehistorIE

    Can I just say… WOW! I could never have imagined what rails and rails of historical costume looked like, organised by period etc. A real coup of a post.

  • http://uffnervintage.com helen uffner

    Loved this article and learning about the fabled costume house! We are the NY equivalent of Angels, though a mere babe at only 35 years in the business, and we only carry authentic 1860′s -1980′s clothes rather than also costumes.!
    I found it interesting that unbeknownst to each other, we both have clothes racked by period, style and color, have our sundries and accessories boxed and labeled on steel shelving, have our own private principal clothes area with accompanying actor tags and also never, never breathe a word about which fashion design clients roam our racks for inspiration! (smile) Sigh, I look forward to one day visiting Angels!

  • Patrick Flynn

    what an amazing website.