As a major new exhibition prepares to open, celebrating 175 years of the entertainment costumier Angels, Maryam Philpott donned her finest and peaked behind the doors to see what Dressed by Angels will offer.
A costume makes a character instantly recognisable, from Batman to Game of Thrones’ John Snow, Cleopatra to each incarnation of Dr Who, their outfit becomes part of who they are. This new exhibition at the Old Truman Brewery celebrates the Angels Costumiers who have been supplying costumes for theatre, film and popular culture for the best part of two centuries.
Initially taking a chronological and then more thematic approach, it is part theatre and film history, part fashion show and part case study of British craft and skill. Dressed by Angels is a fascinating insight into the entrepreneurial story of successive generations of the Angel family and their business, as well as concurrent developments in popular culture celebrated through the costumes for hire.
It opens in the Music Hall era as the foundations of the business established by Morris and his son Daniel Angel are explained with pictures and documents from the time, along with examples of costume from that era. Immediately, fascinating anecdotes come to light including the case of the famous murderer Dr Crippen who sold his wife’s clothes to Angel’s shop and the police had to confiscate them.
This sense of context and history feeds nicely through the whole show and gives shape to what you see. In the room on the Victorian Era, the signs briefly explain how the Empire created a boom in manufacturing that meant poverty and wealth co-existed, which for actors meant having to hire clothes from Angels to perform in, and there are original copies and recreations of famous costumes to enjoy.
A sudden leap into the 20th Century talks about the UK as a ‘powerhouse’ in the supply of skills such as tailoring and cutting, while British talent became important to the entertainment industry. Ivor Novello’s cape and scarf from his iconic entrance in The Lodger stands next to Fred Astaire’s tuxedo from Lady Be Good designed by Charles LeMaire, and recreations of Gladys Calthrop’s nightwear designed for Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence’s famous turn in Private Lives on stage. For most items the name of the designer is included as well as extra notes such as the position of Hitchcock’s career or how it took 15 people six weeks to recreate Lawrence’s pyjamas.
By the end of the Second World War, Angels was a well-established theatrical and military provider, but crucially the exhibition always returns to the central family-orientated nature of the business, so viewers learn about internal strife and disruption while standing next to David Niven’s RAF jacket from A Matter of Life and Death or Peter Sellers’ hat designed by Margaret Furse for The Pink Panther. The chronological section ends with some useful insight into the way costumes are reused or repurposed down the years and how the same historic era can be represented in different decades – here the contrast of Upstairs Downstairs costumes from the 1970s sits alongside Downton Abbey outfits to reflect the restrictions of the era in which the show was created. Downton fans will also be excited to see a preview of a Lady Mary dress that she’ll be wearing in this year’s Christmas Special finale.
Excitement for period drama fans in the TV Classics room who can see the uniform worn by Ross Poldark in the most recent adaptation as well as Sean Bean’s Sharp suit. For cult TV lovers there’s Tom Baker’s Dr Who costume and what could be John Snow’s Night’s Watch leather and fur creation. But again this exhibition cleverly draws you away from the actors and back to the designers and creators, here including a story about changes to BBC policy in the 1970s that promoted the work of up-and-coming designers to improve costume quality and set several of them on the road to Oscar glory. This sits next to a recreated workroom with a hat-making video, and an update on the story of the Angel family who resolved their dramas and expanded the company.
The prevalence of TV and film is redressed in the next section, reminding the viewer of Angel’s roots in supplying costumes for the Music Hall, although as it explains modern theatres tend to buy more costumes outright now due to the volume of shows and tours. For anyone who didn’t make it to Cumberbatch’s Hamlet there’s a chance to see a version of his tin-soldier jacket that was rejected in favour of a larger size, as well as stunning costumes from Wicked, the RSC’s Wolf Hall,Bring Up the Bodies and La Traviata. The breadth of Angel’s business is staggering and, by the time you get to original costumes from My Week with Marilyn, The Theory of Everything and The Iron Lady, it’s clear what a force this once-small family business has been in the entertainment industry.
What is so interesting about this exhibition, and makes it much more than an empty fashion showcase, are the insights and anecdotes peppered along the way to bring the process of clothing actors to life. Learning that Barbara Windsor’s Tudor dress from Carry on Henry was recently used for an extra in the BBC’s Wolf Hall is fascinating, as is the comparison of breastplates from Cleopatra and The Eagle the latter of which shows greater muscle definition emphasising society’s changed expectation of the male physique on screen. And it doesn’t end there, Angels has lent items to pop stars including a headdress worn by Annie Lennox that once adorned a showgirl in Octopussy.
So if you’ve ever wanted to rub shoulders with Benedict Cumberbatch, Harrison Ford, Eddie Redmayne, Michelle Williams, the cast of Downton, David Niven or Ivor Novello then this exhibition may be as close as you get. Dressed by Angels is a fascinating tour through 175 years of costume history, stuffed with fabulous anecdotes, interesting facts and entrepreneurial flair. It ends as it begins with a bellhop suit from The Grand Budapest Hotel that takes you right back to the beginning of Angels, supplying front-of-house uniforms. From this an impressive business has grown and this exhibition is an excellent celebration of the actors, designers, craftsmen and costumiers who have made characters so recognisable.
Dressed by Angels runs atThe Old Truman Brewery, London from2 October 2015 – 3 January 2016|Images: Maryam Philpott