Photographers' Blog

Angels of costume

June 8, 2012

By Suzanne Plunkett

On the outside, Angels The Costumiers is a drab grey warehouse bordered on one side by an industrial estate and on another by an artery of railway lines ferrying weary commuters to the endless suburbs of northwest London. Inside, it’s pure Hollywood.

As the world’s largest supplier of outfits to cinema, stage and television, Angels is home to more than eight miles of clothing rails — a vast and dizzying maze in which it’s simultaneously possible to lose yourself and stumble upon a piece of movie history.

SLIDESHOW: COSTUMES OF THE STARS

“This here is our £60,000-pound rail,” says Jeremy Angel, a creative manager at the costumier, gesturing to a rack on which hangs hundreds of drab-looking ecclesiastical garments. “It’s where we found the Obi-Wan Kenobi robe.”


Photo courtesy of Bonhams

The tale of how staff rediscovered the gown worn by actor Alec Guinness in Star Wars is a favorite at Angels, neatly summing up both the size of the collection and the gems potentially lost within. Kenobi’s cape was regularly rented out as an ordinary monk’s robe for movies and costume parties until it was recognized by a member of staff then auctioned off for £59,000.

Angel, one of the sixth generation of his family involved in the business, escorted me around the warehouse as it began to offer rare public tours. Among the tour highlights will be some of the outfits that have garnered Angels no fewer than 33 Academy Awards for films such as “Cleopatra” (1963), “Star Wars” (1977), “Titanic” (1997) and “Alice in Wonderland” (2011).

Even without the visitors, Angels is a hive of activity. In the tailoring, making and alterations departments, staff with tape measures draped around their necks create new costumes or adapt old ones. In among the racks, others treasure hunt for specific items.

On our travels we encounter a costume researcher searching for a rare Indian ceremonial headdress. With tens of thousands of hats to sift through, it seems an impossible task, but within minutes she holds aloft a turban which will aptly fit the bill.

Another researcher is less fortunate on her quest for a choirboy’s cassock. At one point she picks out one which looks perfect — until she notices it has three arms.

For every weird item of clothing, there is something equally mundane. For years, Angels has collected ordinary outfits that define passing trends. Entire sections of the warehouse are given over to clothing from every decade stretching back over the past century. “Most of my childhood wardrobe is in those racks,” confided Angel.

Since it was established in 1840, Angels has absorbed several other clothing archives, including the BBC’s costume collection, swelling to such a point that it now boasts, among other things, to be able to supply the uniform of any rank from any military organization in the world.

For most visitors, however, the likely attractions will be the outfits worn by the stars. Some of these are on display — like recent costumes from War Horse and The Iron Lady — and others lurk on the rails. At one point, as we are passing, an assistant unintentionally pulls out an outfit worn by Daniel Day Lewis in “Mutiny on the Bounty”.

There are other, more surprising touches of show business and glamor. In the tailoring department a battered ledger contains the measurements of scores of celebrities. Opening at a random page, we find the vital statistics of the late Laurence Olivier right near an entry for Hugh Grant.

Other regular customers, according to Jeremy Angel, include Elton John, Sting, Daniel Craig, Paul and — reflecting the costumier’s strong links with the world of contemporary fashion — Stella McCartney.

Angels tries to keep better track of its celebrity outfits these days, particularly those which might see repeat usage in movie sequels or long-running television series or, indeed, raise a few thousand pounds at auction — a useful source of revenue in tough financial times.

Jeremy Angel is elusive when asked if the economic downturn is affecting his business. Movie and television budgets are falling, he says, but some of the shortfall has been covered by diversifying into opera, ballet and theater. Over six generations “we’ve seen ups and downs,” he adds.

Back in the warehouse, we are standing on a balcony when I spot one of the dressmakers working down among the clothing racks and set off to try and find her. Within minutes I am lost and alone. I can hear the air conditioning units droning overhead, but all other sound is muffled by the soft walls of clothing.

So vast is the collection (one million outfits and counting) that nearly 10 minutes pass before I finally locate Anna Spencer who is putting together costumes for a new television show.

Will these outfits be worn by stars and destined for the £60,000 rail? Spencer allows me to photograph her but won’t let me in on any details, so I leave her to her work and try to find my way out again.

It takes me some time…

To book one of the inaugural tours at Angels, contact tours@angels.uk.com or call Mark on +44 (0) 20 8202 2244.

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