Angels Fancy Dress Costumes Opens Its Historic Doors to Cosplay Lovers
Angels Fancy Dress, the renowned company handling Star Wars, Doctor Who & many more, opens 8 miles of costumes to the public & announce new cosplay lines.
The world of a costumer is often one of short deadlines, extreme designs, and chaotic clients. With unpredictable workloads and a constantly challenging work environment, this is not a profession for the faint of heart.
As a custom costumer and occasional cosplayer, I jumped at the opportunity for a behind the scenes look at one of the world’s largest and most respected professional costume companies, on a private tour which is now being made open to the public.
With its humble beginnings as a second hand clothing shop in the Seven Dials area of London in 1840, Angels has grown into a highly respected leader in the industries of film, theatre, fashion and, believe it or not, comics and video game design.
Original owner Morris Angel and his son Daniel moved the Seven Dials shop to Shaftsbery Avenue in the early years of their business, cementing their relationship with London’s theatre industry. In 1913 their future in movies was assured with the release of Maid of the Mountain, one of the first moving pictures. They won their first Design Academy Award with Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948.
When the original Shaftbery Avenue location burned down in 1989, Angel’s rose from the ashes. They re-opened the rebuilt shop as a packet costume store, cornering the market on fancy dress. Their Hendon warehouse proudly displays over eight miles of TV and movie costuming alongside their tailoring and construction departments.
Recent credits include: The Great Gatsby, Captain America, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, Hugo, Prometheus; the list really goes on and on. With a running total of 38 Oscar winning movies under their belt, Angel’s is, in a word, impressive.
In which, dear Reader, I go on the Angels Fancy Dress cosplay tour…
Collecting my visitor’s badge and making my way to the canteen, I walk past some amazing pictures. A hallway covered in celebrity headshots, each one signed, lined my way. I spot every major face of the silver screen; Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Betty Davis, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn, etc.
Further down are newer faces; David Tennant, Daniel Radcliff, Helena Bonham Carter, Keira Knightly, Warwick Davis; even the Spice Girls. I don’t get too much time to browse the hundreds of faces, as I’m on a deadline.
I’m meeting with Lydia, one of Angels’ Social Media team. Lydia is a cosplayer, and while we wait for the rest of the group she enthuses about the upcoming London MCM expo and costumes she has planned. We’re soon joined by Mark, a jack of all trades in the company, who has over 30 years’ experience in the industry.
Angels already has two sides – packet costumes and industry costumers – but, as Lydia explains:
“We will be having some more Anime and Comic inspired costumes coming in soon. We already have a Sailor Moon line in the works.
Cosplayers have a phenomenal talent and creativity due to their costume making. We want them to come in and see what they can do with the basic items we have available.”
Mark agrees and happily tells the group that they are looking into a new cosplay quality wig range, in addition to the ones they currently stock.
Our tour starts in the tailoring and construction departments. We walk in to see five men in suits bent over tables covered in pattern paper, pins, and tape measures; hand sewing garments and cutting patterns.
Mark casually picks up a large gold costume from a side rail. “This is one we are re-working for Wicked. They’ve recast so we need to make sure it fits the next actor.”
The theatre geek in me goes wild and I find myself clicking away before asking if it’s alright. Mark happily nods and explains that there might be some areas that, due to client confidentiality, we might not be able to take photos, but here it’s fine.
Apparently it gets so secretive at times that the tailors and seamstresses don’t know the actual name of the project they are working on: the movie Warhorse was called ‘Dartmoor’ (due to the wild ponies who live there), for most of time it was in production.
At times, the costumers aren’t even allowed access to the script.
We walk into a joining room, bigger, and this time mostly filled with ladies working on individual pieces. The walls are lined with steamers, dress dummies and inspiration boards. One seamstress is desperately folding, steaming and re-scrunching an aged brown top hat. She explains that it needs to keep the same shape for continuity during filming.
Which brings up an interesting point: how do they design the costumes?
“We don’t actually have any designers on staff. All of the costumes are designed by our clients in meetings with us, and we produce the costumes according to their spec.”
Angels costumes directly influence video game design
Wonderful. If only it were a Skyrim helmet…
Mark explains that it’s not just movies and theatre Angels works for. He holds up a vintage George Galliano for reference. “When game designers or fashion designers come in to look for reference material, they show up in groups, and use historical fashions to inspire their team. And the reverse often happens.”
The Galliano dress in question, a ruffled black number, is held up to a cream linen medieval style dress, still in production. “This black dress was used to inspire the cream dress.”
This is awesome. We don’t even know what this is. It’s just a… thing. It probably comes alive after dark.
Games designers will often have the costumes made to put on their actors when filming motion capture scenes. It helps create a rounded, realistic character.
A fantastic example of the range of projects facing these courageous seamstresses is laid out in front of us; a bright green Wicked dress standing next to the simple little black dress being produced for an unnamed movie.
Oi… Charles Dickens. NO.
Out in the hall as we exit, Mark pauses at a framed letter hanging on the wall. The elegant script tells the story of a man who hired a number of costumes from Angel’s for a theatre production, but due to terrible storms at sea was unable to make it to America. He wanted a refund. His name was Charles Dickens. “He didn’t get one,” says Mark with a knowing smile.
We swiftly move on to the warehouse section of the complex. Climbing the stairs, we are led past a display of some of Angel’s more recent work.
On the landing, Jack the Giant Killer, Great Gatsby, Django Unchained, and Hansel and Gretel each have a place allocated to two costumes and a large poster.
At the end sits a beautiful gown; a replica of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gown that was commissioned by the department store, Harrods, for their window display during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Hundreds of thousands of diamantes were hand glued onto the dress. I get hand cramp just thinking about it.
These are just hints at what awaits us behind the warehouse doors. You know, the warehouse with 8 miles of costumes to explore? Yeah. That one.Angels is aptly named, because this is costume heaven.
When the doors open, rails full of military costumes greet me. Every era and nationality stands neatly to attention as we walk through. Many of the uniforms are basic blanks that appropriate insignia and rank can be added to as needed during the ‘dressing’ stage.
The adjacent room, smaller in comparison but jammed full, is home to all manner of badge, epaulet and braid. Some are real, while others are completely made up. I spot the badges from Dad’s Army on one shelf.
Love this Alien model. Pet? Hat? Whatever.
We briefly pass through domestic enforcement (your police and security uniforms), and enter the fancy dress costume area. Mark suddenly makes a run for a large box. He comes back with a huge smile, and pulls out a small vile of fake blood. We had briefly touched on the quality of packaged costumes earlier and he wants to show me one of his favourite products.
Sure enough, it’s some of the most convincing fake blood I’ve ever seen, and having worked for a Halloween store that was saying something.
Angels were responsible for Tom Baker’s Doctor Who scarf…
We finish up in the fancy dress section with a look at contact lenses and fangs. Lydia explains that while cosplay is very DIY, there are some awesome costumes available that could be easily upgraded.
Mark moves us along and we’re briefly joined by Jeremy Angel, the sixth generation creative director. He walks with us, telling a few stories about his family’s memories of the business. Angels has a few credits to their name but one Jeremy is particularly proud of is the invention of Tom Baker’s now famous Dr. Who scarf.
“My father was dressing Tom for the role, and after looking him over was convinced something was missing. He went out the back and grabbed the first scarf he saw. The rest is history.” Jeremy is obviously very proud of his company and its history.
We wander past rails full of vintage dresses and suits, shirts and trousers. Mark picks up a bright orange and green shirt. “We get a lot of fashion designers coming in looking at these old outfits. They take the patterns, change them around a bit, and you suddenly have a designer sofa”.
Game of Thrones Season 4? Angels costumes.
After that comes historical costumes, each labelled under their historical period. Mark explains that the smaller wheeled rails dotted around can’t be photographed as they are being prepped for production.
I have to stop myself upon seeing an entire rail marked ‘Game of Thrones Season 4.’ I manage to take a picture of the orange label before running to catch up with the rest of the group.
Also, Star Wars. Because Angels Costumes does EVERYONE.
The team at Angels have pulled a few costumes from the rails that they thought we might be interested in. On one of the four dummies is an original Star Wars uniform from A New Hope. On another, a police uniform used in both Dr. Who and Torchwood, then a jacket worn by Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America and lastly a uniform from Richard III.
Look at all these gorgeous capes and monk cloaks. Obi-Wan’s robe could be tucked away in here and you’d never know…
Mark smiles when one of our group ask about an urban legend we’ve all heard about; that at some point they found an original Alec Guinness Obi-Wan robe in a box marked ‘Monks’.
“Yes. It’s true. The robe was rented a ton of times to members of the public and other projects before it was found. Some guy might have gone as a monk to a party, or a Jedi, and ironically had no idea he was wearing the original robe.
But we never know what’s going to make it big. Star Wars was at the time just another sci-fi movie we costumed, and like all our costumes everything went right back on the rails to be re-rented out for the next client who needed it.”
I asked if Angels sold many things at auction. “We do sometimes. We offer a service where we can lock away the principal character costumes so they can’t be used again post production.”
Rest In Peace, Heath Ledger.
The last costume that Heath Ledger ever wore for The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.
Lydia disappears briefly before returning with a costume that I am not embarrassed to admit almost made me cry. The dirtied white clown costume was covered in plastic and tagged with the name ‘Heath Ledger’.
“This is the last costume he ever wore for Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus,” she says, both proud and sombre. It strikes home exactly how much history I am casually walking through, and immediately the warehouse takes on the feeling of a cathedral.
Mark tells of how Terry Gilliam and Heath stayed for about three weeks at the warehouse, improvising, trying on costumes and building Heath’s character.
Apparently at one point they also lost Anne Lennox in here when she was dressing for the Queen’s Jubilee performance. She must have made it out, as I remember watching her on TV.
Historical dramas and shameless commercials
Because everyone loves a moustache…
Our little group visits the refrigerated fur room where we learn about the largest bill ever sent to a client. Apparently a genuine bear fur hat, the historical original kind you can’t get any more, was unceremoniously ‘trimmed’ by a costumer during the filming of a commercial.
I ask about historical accuracy in their costumes. Mark explains that if you do it right, no-one notices. Much of what Angels does will be completely ignored, and that’s exactly what they want.
The company made over 1,400 costumes for Titanic. Amusingly, all with mirrored writing, as the set was only the left side of the ship, meaning only the back end of ‘White Star Line’ would have been seen on the crews’ uniforms. Everything was flipped post production.
Mark pulls a beautiful Victorian lace cape from one rail. “Some of this stuff is the real thing. There’s no separation between the genuine article and something we have made. All of them go on the rail for productions to look at and rent. However in the recreation of historical costumes we use paintings as reference, and clothes that still survive from back then.
“That being said, painters are not seamstresses. They may not paint a dart, but as makers we need to improvise and imagine a dart, or the dress wont work. Accuracy is important but if we did a movie set in 1983, we wouldn’t only dress people in outfits from 1983. We would dress some people in outfits from the 1970’s, 1980, 1982.
“Not everyone on the street is wearing clothing they bought on the day, some are even wearing hand-me-downs or vintage.”
It’s a very interesting point where historical re-enactment is considered.
We march on towards the armoury, and pass eight full sets of Samurai armour. I ask what they have been used for and both Lydia and Mark shrug. “No idea, they’ve just always been there.”
I used to be an adventurer. But then I took a costume tour to the knee.
While passing through the helmets I spot a familiar face. The Skyrim helmet stares back at me, looking slightly put out at not being mentioned on the tour. Hanging on the wall are full sets or armour. An Egyptian set sits next to a Knight’s Templar set. Whole floor length shelving units of chain mail, of various weaves, boarder the walkway.
I spot a familiar tunic used in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
Mark muses, “The guys were always coming to us for costumes, running around here. Both they and Spike Milligan always wanted to leave the tags on for filming for some odd reason.”
After playing around in the Light Entertainment collection, the area dedicated to ‘everything else’ (a Ridley Scott’s Alien head, a giant tomato suit from BBC’s It’s a Knock Out, pantaloons worn by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder…) we’re herded out to the final sections.
Accessories make the outfit…
Jewellery and accessories make an outfit complete and Angels has that covered too. In a room that puts Aladdin’s cave to shame we see a headdress worn in the 5th Element, and one worn in James Bond’s Octopussy.
There are a number of small wooden boxes filled with jewellery ready to go out to clients and an entire shelf full of crowns. Masks of every description stared out over us from tall shelves.
All that glitters here isn’t gold, but it certainly is beautiful.
Dear Tom Baker, we love you so very, very much.
And back to Doctor Who in a wibbly-wobbly time loop…
As the tour wraps up we walk past a rail marked Dr. Who. The costumes from the latest episodes still needed to go back on the rails.
Peaking from behind one of the last doors is the original artwork of Tom Baker’s Doctor. He is looking surprisingly romantic in an open frill shirt and his cranberry suit, but something is missing. I remember Jeremy’s story about his dad and the scarf.
Angels is really a treasure trove of inspiration for the lowly costumer. Their dedication and their individual touches remind you that it’s ok to push the boundaries, and to pay close attention to the little things. They make all the difference.
If you would like to take a tour at Angels, information on booking can be found via their website.
A lovely costume from the movie Hansel and Gretel.
Miss Longo found a thing. A marvellous thing.