Where fun meets fashion and films

Whether you're hiring or buying, the fancy dress business is a glamorous affair, says Jonathan Sale
Click to follow
The Independent Online

airies, centurions, Cleopatra, under-the-sea, Spanish, showgirls, Hallowe'en, animal heads - animal bodies are downstairs." Emma Angel is the first female boss in six generations of the Angel family, which has been a leading purveyor of fancy dress costumes to the gentry and theatrical folk since 1840. Standing beside a large fish outfit, she was listing some of the other costumes for hire on the fourth floor of Angels Fancy Dress in Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1.

Most of the Angelic attire was originally made for film and television. If you've seen Star Wars, you've seen Angels' handiwork. In fact, you might conceivably have worn it; until someone in the company noticed and put this precious item of film memorabilia somewhere safe, Alec Guinness's sacred Obi-Wan Kenobi robe was being hired out to party-goers as a routine monkish outfit. Other garments were made for films which include Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, The Aviator and the Bond and Harry Potter movies and were returned to Angels when the cameras stopped rolling. Displayed on mannequins - and on anyone who hires them for a week - are the outfits worn by fancy men Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and by Will Young in Mrs Henderson Presents.

Angels is a world in which fun meets fashion meets films. A new scheme is bringing six new entrants to this world and giving them a rare chance to get their feet in the dressing-room door; they are just starting as trainee wardrobe assistants, thanks to the Skillset Film Skills Fund and Film London. For 18 months they will learn the art of altering costumes to fit actors and fiddling with them (the costumes, not the actors) between takes. There are placements with film companies but most of the training takes place at Angels The Costumiers, which is run by Emma's father, Tim, at the company's site in Hendon, north London, where the bulk of the stock is stored on more than five miles of racks.

Jacqueline Durran, who used to work there, was nominated for an Oscar for her costume design in Pride and Prejudice, having won a BAFTA last year for Vera Drake. Two former "Wardrobe Supervisors" have, between them, worked on Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Batman Begins and Star Wars: Episodes II and III. For others, Angels has led to different parts of the rag trade, from fashion shoots to a career as a personal shopper.

Back in the Shaftesbury Avenue branch of fancy dress heaven, Emma has eight costume assistants to point the general public towards the medieval or Regency gown of their dreams. She has an "alterations person" who nips and tucks garments to fit the customer's curves and bulges. Outfits alter over time, too. Some of the Angelic costumes were first hired out for the extravagant Sixties movie Cleopatra. Just as a Regency lady would pass on her used gowns to her maid, so today's outfits move downmarket. "When a costume becomes 'tired', we strip it down and make a peasant's outfit. You always need peasants in a period film. Eventually it would become rags - 'rough stuff' - for the poor. Also, with military uniform, officers start out looking smart and by the end of the war you need costumes that are bloody, broken down and missing arms."

Brand new outfits, at prices from £10 to £150, are sold on the lower two floors by retail staff, who may well be wearing wigs - or, if it's Hallowe'en, fangs. (This is not a career for the shy and retiring.) The more spectacular stuff - for hire - starts on the third floor: "Men's period costume and men's and ladies' Sixties and Seventies costumes. Elvis is very popular: the white jump suit, at £70 plus Vat per week, and the more weighty costume, also for Elvis impersonators, at £200 plus VAT." And on the third floor: "Ladies' period costumes from medieval to 1950s; cowboys, Indians and showgirls. No two dresses are the same: if you are going to a medieval ball, the last thing you want is someone turning up in the same medieval costume."

Finally, does Angels do angel costumes? "We have short, sexy angel outfits or the more traditional full-length robe," replies Emma (the archangel, obviously). "Men have the option of angels in gold hot pants. There are also fallen angels - with a broken halo." Yet she never gets to wear them herself. "I don't get invited to many fancy dress parties." Presumably her friends can't stand the competition.

Angels Fancy Dress, 119, Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8AE (020-7836 5678)