Life & Culture

The expert costumiers of screen and shop

Angel family in seventh heaven


If Rabbi Julia Neuberger and her colleagues looked particularly comfortable at prayer during the recent High Holidays, it was thanks to angelic intervention. Not, as you may or may not think, angels from heaven, but Angels of Hendon.

She complained to Tim Angel about how hot and heavy her yomtov robes were and his people made new ones, lighter and more comfortable. Cladding the clergy is hardly a daunting prospect for them. Angels have dressed popes and archbishops, druids and swamis. And multitudinous though the turnout for Kol Nidrei at Upper Berkeley Street may be, it hardly vies with the Jedi hordes who follow Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom Angels also robed.

He was from a galaxy far, far away. The relationship between Angels, the great theatrical costumier family, and the West London Synagogue is much closer. The Angels are congregants, both the synagogue and the firm are celebrating their 175th anniversary this year, and the great-great-great grandfather of 66-year-old Tim, the company's current chairman, was one of the first employees of the newly-formed synagogue.

Daniel Angel, a penniless young tailor from Frankfurt, arrived in London in 1813 and attempted to eke out a living in the then slums of Covent Garden. In 1840, the year the synagogue was started by a group of families who broke away from Bevis Marks, he took a job as ground-keeper of their cemetery in Balls Pond Road, Islington. The terms of the job dictated that he lived on site, must be there from sunset onwards and take no other employment. The rest of the family stayed in Covent Garden where Daniel's son Morris opened a little shop – Morris Angel & Son. Was his father supplying him with clothes from the families of the affluent interred in the Balls Pond Road? Dead men tell no tales.

Covent Garden was not a bad place to be. The Theatres Act of 1843 curtailed the thitherto-immense power of the Lord Chamberlain and led to an explosion of all sorts of dramatic entertainment and many new playhouses. As actors had to supply their own costumes and getting the role often depended on having the best, they always wanted to borrow clothes. "But 'borrow' was never in the family vocabulary," says the chairman, "the word is 'hire'." By the time Morris died in 1885 he was passing on a good business to his son Daniel. The windows of the shop, now the Angel fancy dress emporium in Shaftesbury Avenue, announced Angels as "Theatrical Clothiers & Costumiers" and also offered "uniforms and liveries" and "misfits"- clothes that hadn't fitted the original customers but might well fit somebody else.

Another line of business were suits handmade in Savile Row but never paid for or collected by the customer. "The tailor," says Tim, "was always the last person to get paid."

That a synagogue should flourish for 175 years is a mechayeh, that a family business survives for seven generations is a miracle. As some readers will know to their cost, the third generation is very often breaking-point for family firms and the start of family break-up - Jacob and Esau were third generation. Today, Tim and his two sons Daniel and Jeremy are to be found at their vast, modern headquarters in Hendon; his daughter Emma runs the fancy-dress business in the West End (fancy dress is 30 per cent of the business). In recent decades, the company has hoovered up many former competitors. You may remember Bermans and Nathans - long gone to the Angels. Their power in the market prompted an Office of Fair Trading inquiry. Tim brought in his wife Eleanor to deal with it 25 years ago and she is still involved with the business today.

In the foyer of the headquarters, high, airy and light, young costume-designer types in jeans and boots wait in comfortable armchairs for their appointments. Who knows what they're looking for? The whole of human and extra-terrestrial life can be costumed in this building.

Jeremy Angel, a hotshot at online (now of course a major part of the business), takes me on a tour of the workrooms where skilled cutters, seamstresses and seamsters (yes, there is, or was, such a word) are making costumes for a new Broadway production of Fiddler On The Roof opening next month. Later, he ushers me round acres of warehouse containing every dress, cloak, uniform, livery, crown, accessory and epaulette you've ever seen and many you haven't. In this drawer is the stuff stitched on to the original Dad's Army uniforms and here's the stuff they're using in the forthcoming Dad's Army film. Everything ever put on screen attracts anoraks who know every nicety and would be appalled by imprecision but I can tell you that when military uniforms don't call for a particular brass button they get the brass buttons of the Egyptian navy which happen to be wonderfully generic.

To enter chairman Tim's office, one has to negotiate special security, a child security gate that keeps his two black spaniels from roaming round the building. They come to work with him every day. "Having your dogs at work is very relaxing," he says. He came into the business in 1967 and has transformed it. "Colour television was just coming in. It was a fabulous, unrepeatable time. There were lots of costume dramas and a new generation of costume designers who were very creative. They hired in all their period costumes. There was a BBC costume department that had a wonderful store of contemporary, sixties and seventies clothes that I wanted. I bought it five years ago." A small example of what he has done.

"Researching the company's history for our book Behind The Seams brought home how we have changed and developed with popular culture. In the 19th century it was theatre, the 20th film and television. Those continue of course but now it's streaming and Netflix, Amazon and HBO. Game of Thrones we did a lot on."

Angels has passed through wars in the world and war in the family. It even survived Tim's horrible great aunt who could have destroyed it. Rationing was good - when people couldn't buy or make, they hired.

Health and safety more or less wiped out bonfire night. That created a whole new fancy-dress market for Halloween. Every change is an opportunity. It isn't only thanks to Julia Neuberger that Angels seems sealed in the book of life.

'Behind The Seams, Angels Costumes' is available via or from or Foyles online at £30.

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