A book and exhibition shine a light on the remarkable 175-year history of Britain’s oldest costume house, writes Alex Galbinski

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Chairman Tim Angel is a sixth-generation Angel

From a dress in the style favoured by Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady to a recreated costume for James Bond’s cat-loving villain Blofeld – complete with scar made from liquid latex – and costumes worn by the cast of Downton Abbey, a new exhibition reveals more than 100 iconic pieces produced by Angels the Costumiers for the stage and screen over the centuries.

Dressed By Angels, which opened last week at the Old Truman Brewery, in Hanbury Street and runs until January, is a fascinating walk through costume history.

The interactive exhibition coincides with the firm’s 175th anniversary and the publication of Behind The Seams, a fascinating new book about Angels, which was established in 1840.

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Speaking at the launch of the exhibition, Tim Angel, the Hendon-based company’s chairman, told Jewish News how he discovered the origins of the family business stretch back a remarkable seven generations.

“My late father would never talk about the past, so I had to put all the pieces together from board minutes and other papers,” he explained. ”I’d always thought the business had been founded by a Morris Angel, but it was his father, Daniel, who came over from Germany in 1813, who started it all. He was a tailor who settled in Seven Dials in Covent Garden, where there were many Jewish immigrants.

“I don’t think he could make ends meet as a tailor, so he got a job as the groundskeeper at the West London Synagogue’s Balls Pond Road cemetery. He was responsible for burying very wealthy people; in some cases it seems the families would sell the clothes [of the deceased] – or they were so wealthy they just gave them to him. He in turn gave them to his son, who sold them in his shop.”

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Recreation of Moira Shearer’s outfit from The Red Shoes and costumes from Wicked

Like the book, the collection – which was suggested to Angel by exhibition company ExhibiTours – provides the backstory of a multitude of costumes and gives visitors the opportunity to see up close more than 100 outfits selected from Angels’ back catalogue, from the Victorian era to the present day.

Among others, the collection features bespoke costumes made for Laurence Olivier, Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep.

Other pieces of interest include Tom Baker’s Doctor Who outfit, complete with his trademark long scarf, one of the robes made for Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and an original Hussar jacket from The Charge Of The Light Brigade film as worn by Adam Ant in the 1980s.

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More than 100 items are exhibited in Dressed By Angels

More recently, Angels supplied the headdress worn by Beyonce while promoting her The Mrs Carter World Tour, the jacket singer Kanye West wore during his performance at this year’s Brit Awards and one of the red jackets Benedict Cumberbatch tried on for his role in Hamlet.

Also included are fun nuggets of information, such as a measurement book showing Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence’s vital statistics and Charles Dickens’ letter describing the character of Mrs Gamp in a note to the costume department, saying: “She is a fat old worthy maid with a husky voice and a short neck”.

Behind The Seams chronicles some remarkable anecdotes, including that Angels has dressed 5,000 men in 57 different uniforms – representing the dozens of nationalities that took part in the Normandy landings – in the making of The Longest Day.

For Evita, Angels provided more than 2,000 costumes just for the funeral scene. Angels – which has about one million costumes in its warehouse in West Hendon – has also supplied the Royal Family and the outfits for more than 30 Academy Award-winning films, including Moulin Rouge, Chariots Of Fire, Gladiator and Titanic. Tim Angel, a former chairman of BAFTA, is proud of his company. “I think it’s quite incredible that it’s still a family business. It’s survived and it’s still doing exactly what it did back in 1840.”

• Dressed By Angels runs at the Old Truman Brewery, in Hanbury Street, London. Booking until 3 January 2016.

For more details, visit www.dressedbyangels.co.uk/the-exhibition

Behind The Seams: Seven Generations Of Dressing The Stars Of Stage, Screen and TV by James Bellini and Sally Angel, priced £30, is available now.