Tim Angel is the current chairman and his earliest recollection of the business is playing in the lifts as a child. "I was 16 or 17 when I knew I wanted to work here," he says. He started his career at the bottom, "packing shelves and cleaning boots. It takes time to learn the ropes. I cut my teeth on amateur musicals. The St Austell Dramatic Society doing Paint Your Wagon was the first thing I did on my own - lots of choruses, gold-diggers and madams and cowboys. My first television programme was the Onedin Line. I loved doing the costumes - I'm a businessman but I'm creative, too."
He never considered working anywhere else - and now his children, the sixth generation, are working their way up, too. Daniel, 20, is in the men's costume department, and Emma, 22, runs the fancy-dress arm of the business. They are coming into a distinguished heritage. "The business has been in existence since 1790 in a limited form," says Angel. "My family must have come over sometime in the 1700s and they began by selling clothes from a stall. The shop was started around 1840 or 1850. It was on the fringes of theatreland, and that's how the theatre connection started. Now we are the custodians of 200 years of fashion."
Most of their costumes from the mid-17th century on are original pieces, the rest are copies, carefully modelled on the real thing and, where possible, fashioned from authentic materials. Garments that fall to pieces through prolonged wear can be cannibalised to make "new" costumes. But period- wear is only a part of it. The company can also take on the Spice Girls' movie, James Bond, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Mission Impossible without batting an eyelid. "Clothes establish characters - look at Andie McDowell's hat and Simon Callow's waistcoat in Four Weddings," says Angel.
And they can do scruffy, too. "Anyone can do smart costumes, but we can do all layers of society. We can do characters like rough thugs or chimney sweeps. We can do crowd scenes. For Michael Collins, we had a scene with a crowd of 5,500. If you have a mass of soldiery, it has to be right. The 'walking wallpaper' behind the main action has to be authentic."
From Angels & Bermans, it is certainly likely to be authentic. The company has racked up more than 20 Oscars (military uniforms are particularly tricky and when they do make a mistake, letters flood in: "Were you aware the military decoration on the young lieutenant's uniform was awarded at a battle that would have taken place long before he was born?" etc)
The company has a staff of 210 at headquarters alone (there is also the fancy-dress division on Shaftesbury Avenue, and the Paris office). The team includes wigmakers, jewellers, milliners, dressmakers, cutters - and a librarian. "Our library is incredible and unique," says Angel. "It has not only books on clothes but a whole range of other references. We had an enquiry the other day about what the police wear in some obscure place in the Far East - we can look it all up. Nothing really fazes us - it's a challenge. It's incredibly good fun."
Amazingly, there is no catalogue for the costumes in stock, which hang on five miles of rails. "We just know that we've got, say, 600 Chinese tunics or 500 American army uniforms," says Angel. The clothes are difficult to catalogue partly because they can change dramatically. One of Angel's biggest triumphs was during the filming of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. A last-minute change of designer meant a last-minute costume change - for 300 bowmen and 400 soldiers, required within four weeks. Panic - but only for a moment. Angel remembered they had a stock of padded jackets used for Chinese soldiers in Empire of the Sun. Once the stuffing was removed and the jackets turned back to front, voila!
Walking round the collection is fascinating. The clothes are arranged by date: there are rails of pastel Thirties dance dresses and wartime utility wear and hunting pink and medieval rags and chain mail (which is incredibly heavy - a good substitute is knitted string sprayed silver). Authentic underwear and accessories are a must, so there are shelves of bustles and hip rolls and bum rolls and proper nylons and shifts and petticoats, beaded handbags and Kelly bags and necklaces and umbrellas and parasols and jewellery and spectacles (25,000 pairs) and tiaras. A strait-jacket is lying around, waiting to be hung up in the right place. A box labelled "Pre-Formed Cream Nuns Headdresses" sits next to another full of prisoner- of-war aprons. There is a special, separate section for military wear. Two full-time boot polishers are employed to look after the shoes. Here is the Oscar-winning costume that Robert Downey Jr wore in Restoration, all gaudy silks and stripes; there is the suit that Stephen Fry wears on the posters for Wilde.
It takes an hour and a half to walk round the entire collection. Angel himself is a frequent wanderer round the rails. "One of the things I love is that walking around I can see things that remind me of events in my life, working with my father," he says. "I have hundreds of memories hung up round the building."
Angels & Bermans, 40 Camden Street, London NW1 0EN, 0171 387 0999.Reuse content