Angels at my shoulder celebrate 175 years in show business

Angels at my shoulder celebrate 175 years in show business

By Jenni Frazer for the Times of Israel posted March 24 2016 (Purim)

LONDON — For the last 175 years, a redoubtable family business in Britain has been the name synonymous with costumes for theatre, film and TV — the go-to company from London’s Pinewood to Hollywood. The wonderfully-named Angels Costumiers is now run by the sixth and seventh generations of the family. And, oddly, the origins of the business lie within the flagship community of the Reform Judaism movement in the United Kingdom.

Tim Angel (whose real name is Morris), is the chairman of the company which occupies a huge site in north-west London. As he recounts his family history — which began with his great-great-great-grandfather — his eyes light up with pleasure, for the Angels had the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time, catching the waves of popular culture. Its success was celebrated last month by a special achievement award from BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

The story begins with Daniel Angel, a penniless immigrant tailor, probably from Frankfurt, who arrived in London aged about 19 or 20 in 1813. “Daniel headed for where there were other Jews, settling in the Seven Dials district,” says his descendant Tim. (Today the Seven Dials district is now on the edge of fashionable Covent Garden.)

But actually, Daniel Angel was living in an area known as St Giles, and its “rookery,” the term for the squalid collection of slum housing, was a byword for thievery, vagrancy, drunkenness and the lowest of the low. Daniel soon married and had five children. The family lived in St Giles and Daniel sold clothes from a stall outside the ground floor of their house.

“But,” says Tim, “he couldn’t make ends meet… and so when West London Synagogue was looking for a cemetery keeper, Daniel applied and he got the job.”

The post came with a house in Islington, to which the Angels moved. But Daniel and his eldest son Morris soon saw that many of the fashionable Reform Jews who were being buried in the new cemetery were the possessors of enviable wardrobes.

“I think,” says Tim, “that Daniel found a way of telling the wealthy widows that he would clear their husbands’ clothes for them.” He sent the suits and shirts back to Morris in St Giles, and the clothes were then sold as “nearly-new.”

Around the same time, new forms of entertainment were beginning to emerge in St Giles, the so-called “penny gaffs,” which were the precursors of music-hall and vaudeville theater.

“These were places only affordable by really poor people and the entertainers were often actors from the [legitimate] theatres who would perform after their own shows. The actors were responsible for providing their own clothes. We think that what happened is that some actors would have said to Morris Angel, we only want a costume for three or four nights, can we borrow something? But,” says Tim Angel with a grin, “the word ‘borrow’ doesn’t exist in the Angel family vocabulary. The word is ‘hire,’ and we think that’s how the hire business got born.”

Morrris, says Tim Angel, “was the clever one. His name was above the door and the family company is Morris Angel and Son.” From the first two Angels a tradition evolved that the eldest son would always be named Daniel and then his eldest son would be called Morris— the newest Angel, Tim’s grandson, born in 2014, is Matthew Morris Angel.

Morris’s great good fortune was to begin making and supplying costumes and clothes to the music halls which evolved out of the penny gaffs, and to the legitimate theaters too. Charles Dickens was an early customer and the company files include a letter from him describing a costume he required for an amateur dramatic production.

At the tail end of the 19th century a gigantic slum clearance scheme was begun in London, demolishing the St Giles rookery. Instead there was new building on a massive north-south artery, Shaftesbury Avenue, named for its benefactor, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

The theaters gravitated to this new thoroughfare and so, naturally, did Morris Angel, taking premises which are still, today, the central London headquarters of the Angels’ famous fancy-dress business.

The company then, of course, did not deal in fancy-dress: that was to come much later, but is a huge part of Angels’ present-day business.

Tim’s second son, Jeremy, prowls round the fancy-dress rails today and points wistfully to a child’s tiger costume hanging high above our heads. He remembers wearing it as a little boy. Expanding on the two fixed points of the year, Purim and Halloween, Angels has turned fancy-dress into a 52-week long obsession for the British public, not least because of the rise in bachelor and bachelorette — or “stag” and “hen” parties — which usually require adult dressing up. (Last year the top costumes for Purim included Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Spiderman for children, while adults favored dressing up as nuns, monks, and Batman.)

In Morris Angel’s day, however, the company specialized in men’s tailoring — often of military uniforms— and in supplying costumes for hire for the stage. As the second Daniel Angel took over, the company began dressing actors for “dozens” of musicals, often the hit shows of the day with the big stars wearing Angels’ clothes.

“We did lots of musicals, West End shows, shows on tour,” says Tim Angel. “And then after the First World War, there was a depression, and a lot of the theaters closed down.” Instead the public began to be wooed by early cinema, and, once again, Angels were in on the act.

Their first film was “The Lodger,” made in 1927, starring the enormously popular actor and singer Ivor Novello, and directed by a young and unknown British director — Alfred Hitchcock, before he went to Hollywood.

Angels began supplying costumes for the films, but also for the cinemas themselves, as the new and grand cinema chains wanted uniforms for their staff, for the usherettes and commissionaires to serve and welcome the public. At around the same time Angels won contracts to outfit front-of-house staff at large hotel chains.

“Luck and location,” says Tim Angel, played an enormous part in the success of the company. But he also points to other Jewish companies — some of which Angels eventually swallowed up — which were doing much the same thing and have now all died out. At the turn of the century, he says, “98 percent” of stage costumes were supplied by Jewish firms; but none of the companies survived past the third generation.

Angels, however, succeeded by recognizing opportunity and cashing in on new developments: from stage to film, and from film to TV. Now that remains the core of the business and Jeremy Angel is my guide through the more than eight miles — no, that is not a typo — of clothes in the gigantic warehouse in north-west London.

New employees spend their first three months doing nothing but putting back stock, so that they know where everything is. I am marched past rooms full of military badges, of “Jewish coats” and “Hitler caps,” of police and ambulance uniforms, or Samurai warrior metal outfits. Everything is meticulously labelled and catalogued, down to the last absolutely accurate button or hook and eye.

So devoted are the family to the company that many of their own old clothes go into stock where they can quietly turn into vintage costumes. Laughing, Jeremy Angel shows off a poster for the new film starring Maggie Smith, “The Lady In the Van,” in which Smith plays a down-and-out. “Her boots belonged to my grandma,” he says, “and in 20 years’ time my own old clothes may become useful costumes.”

Name any feature film today and the chances are that Angels will have supplied the costumes, either to the lead actors, the supporting actors, or the extras — and sometimes a combination of all three. Angels has dressed 36 Best Costume Oscar-winning films, from “Gandhi” to “Lawrence of Arabia,” from 4,000 period costumes for Eva Peron’s funeral in “Evita,” to the distressed medieval outfits in “Game of Thrones.”

Hundreds of UK TV shows have been dressed by Angels, and they remain the vital company for stage productions, in Britain and on Broadway — the most recent there include “The King and I” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Because of its long history and acquisition of former rivals’ businesses (including the stock of the BBC’s costume department), Angels has an unprecedented trove of original clothes. A casual visit to one of the sewing rooms reveals an 18th century man’s coat hanging up, used as reference by the expert team to make and fit a 21st century actor. On the other side of the room, the embroidery on a military tunic has been forensically unpicked so that it can be copied onto a present-day garment.

Many of the costumes are altered, re-made, recycled — but some remain special. Two particular stand-outs are the Queen Elizabeth I dresses, one made for Judi Dench for “Shakespeare in Love,” and the other for Cate Blanchett for “Elizabeth.”

Coronation gown made by Angels Costumiers and worn in the forthcoming TV show ‘The Crown.’ (courtesy)
Coronation gown made by Angels Costumiers and worn in the forthcoming TV show ‘The Crown.’ (courtesy)

And around the corner is a dress which neatly sums up the Angels’ axiom that “you never know, someone might need this.” In 2013 Harrods department store celebrated the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Angels were asked to supply the queen’s coronation gown for the store’s window display, and the exquisite replica is almost a carbon copy of the original — except that its jewels were glued on rather than hand-sewn as they had been in 1953.

The dress is tiny — as was the young queen in 1953. And last year Netflix announced a new drama series, “The Crown,” based on Peter Morgan’s play, “The Audience,” about the early years of the queen’s reign. Netflix needed a coronation gown. Angels just happened to have one handy.

Viewers will be able to see the stunning creation when the show airs this summer — and actress Claire Foy, who plays the queen, is just as tiny as the monarch.

“We didn’t need to do any alterations,” says a happy Jeremy Angel.

  • 24 March, 2016