11 things you might not know about film and TV costumes

Go behind the seams of Star Wars, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Broadchurch, The Crown and more

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Think of your favourite TV drama. A show of any size. It doesn’t matter: whether you chose Game of Thrones, Poldark, Doctor Who or got flustered and answered that question with a film, its clothes were probably plucked from the 8.5 miles of rails based at Angels Costumes.

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They’re truly cut from a different cloth. Although only staffed by 120 costumiers, the north London warehouse’s 1.5 million outfits make it the largest privately owned collection of costume for film, theatre and television anywhere in the world. And through its 176-year history, Angels has supplied outfits to 37 films that received a Best Costume Oscar and the costumiers won their own special Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Bafta in 2016. These guys know how to dress to impress. 

But they don’t just know the difference between a cross stitch and Lazy daisy. We spoke to Jeremy Angel, 6th generation Angel to champion the family business, alongside Doctor Who and Sherlock costume designer Ray Holman to find out what tricks screen’s wardrobe department hides up its sleeves.

1. Almost all costumes need some very odd alterations

All outfits, including the one you’re wearing now (providing you’re not reading this in your birthday suit), are suitable for a primetime drama. The only adjustment you might need is in the shoe department. 

Not there’s nothing wrong with your current clogs, but the wardrobe team will have to fasten foam to your soles. Why? Most footwear worn by actors are fitted with a small spongy layer to prevent footsteps from interrupting their dialogue. 

As most people know, in scripted film and TV microphones are only designed to record crisp dialogue, with most sound effects are replicated in post-production by sound maestros known as Foleys. These Foley artists replicate whatever noises they see on screen in the comfort of a studio and edit it into the final film. 

Right, shoes foamed up? Congrats you’re almost ready. Now you just need to decide what version of the outfit you’re donning for your debut. Often actors have different cuts for the same outfit, depending on how mobile they need to be in a scene. 

For instance, John Barrowman AKA Captain Jack “Face of Boe” Harkness wore three versions of his trench coat during his time in Torchwood and Doctor Who: one standard ‘day coat’, a slightly shorter cut for running and one longer coat for those dramatic windswept skyline shots.

After all, if you brooded on a rooftop without a dramatic jacket flurrying behind you, did it really happen?

2. The costume makers often have no idea what they’re making

The showrunner will form an idea what outfits they want on-screen. The costume designer will work with the actors to finalise their look. But the actual costume makers? They might not have a clue what they’re sculpting.

To keep plots as secret as possible, costumiers often aren’t told what they’re working on and will have to sign a legally-binding non-disclosure agreement to stop them guessing aloud. They don’t see the scripts and usually the entire story will remain a mystery. Instead, the makers have to rely on the costume designer’s plans – no matter how strange they seem.

“One time we were making bright pink police uniforms, fairly normal from on the top half, but from the waist down there was chicken legs instead of trousers,” recalls Angel. “The makers that put it together had no idea it was for The Monty Python live shows – they had no context at all and only found out after those legs went on stage.”

However, Angel says there’s one main circumstance the costumers know more than anyone else: if they’re working on a Mike Leigh production. Because Leigh is a pioneer of improvisation (his films often start without a script and performers meet for the first time in-character) actors have a huge say over the production – including their outfit choice.

“On Leigh’s films the actors get to pick out what they’re going to wear that day and from that they have to give us a lot of details about the scene to make sure the outfit is suitable,” says Angel.

The trailer for Mike Leigh’s J.M.W. Turner biopic Mr Turner 

But even if a script is kept firmly under a show’s hat, a wardrobe choice can inadvertently disclose major plot details. “The Sherlock Christmas special was a great example of this,” remembers Angel. “When we first started working on it I noticed the famous Sherlock coat alongside a mound of Victorian outfits. I instantly knew they were going back to an original Sherlock setting. That spoiler was a brilliant and terrible moment at the same time!”

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3. It’s an industry with A LOT of codenames

The sartorial secrecy doesn’t stop at the sewing machine – the web of non-discloses means even a basic conversation at a costume house could easily get you in a tangle. “Everyone might guess what everyone else is working on, but they can’t talk about it thanks to the NDAs,” says Angel.

“They’re very strict. If we stuck to the letter of the law from the first letter we get from productions, in theory we could have never been able to take the Bafta award – we wouldn’t be able to tell people what films we worked on. We have to negotiate as we go along.”

And one way to easily move along a project is with codenames that allow makers to work with productions without actually knowing what they are. As a result the labyrinth of rails in Angels are shielded in mysterious labels, words only the hardiest cryptic crossword fan could decipher.

For instance, ‘Dartmoor’: what production is that? We’ll give you a clue: it’s a film…directed by Steven Spielberg…that was nominated for six Oscars. Any idea?

The answer: War Horse. And Dartmoor is the perfect working title for those in the know: not only was the First World War movie filmed in the horse-friendly Dartmoor county park, but the original novel written by Devon-based author Michael Morpurgo.

Round two: Planet Ice. Although helmed by the director of a prominent sci-fi film, this space-sounding name doesn’t actually contain any intergalactic travel. But it does contain a ship…and one giant piece of ice.

Give yourself a blue diamond necklace if you said Titanic.

Okay, let’s crank up the difficulty for round three: Virginia. That’s the codename for a 2007 film with Cate Blanchett in the lead role, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. It’s a historical drama…one also starring Clive Owen… one that picked Academy Award for Costume Design…

Give yourself a pat on your well-dressed back if you said Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

4. TV costumes are assembled at lightning speed

Although films can be in production in years before shooting, TV costume designers have to produce outfits at the drop of a hat – no matter how big the job. 

For instance, remember The Mire from Doctor Who? Those giant warriors who picked on the Vikings in series nine? Six of those giants were made in two weeks. A team of 15 had to design, sculpt, paint, test and replicate in time for an immovable shooting schedule.

But two weeks can be a luxury. “The production on The Crown went mostly smoothly, but there were some days when the show needed an authentic period suit for Prince Phillip’s bodyguard, for example, at a day’s notice,” recalls Angel.

So why is the wardrobe department scrambled to action last? Do the showrunners simply forget the costumes until the final minute? Are the clothes always an afterthought? Not exactly. Like most big decisions in TV, it comes down to the budget.

“In order to be, shall we say, economical with people’s contracts, costume designers have to wait until a filming schedule is finalised so that we know what days actors are working and how we’re being paid,” reveals Holman. “Even though you may know who the actor is, you can’t start work until the contracts and shooting schedules are finalised.”

Lesson learned: if you want to be a costume designer you need to be a fan of clothes and impossibly high-stress situations.

5. You have to pay extras for turning up in their own clothes

Even if you’re filming a drama set in the modern day, everyone – yes, everyone – you see on screen will wear an outfit from the wardrobe department.

“It’s easy to think that shows set in the now could direct extras to simply come donning their own clothes, but that leads to several additional costs,” explains Angel. “When you hire an extra, you’re employing a blank canvas. If you want them to wear their normal clothes, it’ll cost you extra. If you have a scene where they change even a jumper, that’s an additional cost. So normally productions provide clothes for all on camera.”

But how do they arrange sizes for all the extras? This corner is easily cut. Well, folded: to save costs and tailoring time, a show is likely to supply extras with extra long trousers and ask them to tuck the trousers inside themselves.

There you go: if you’re not enjoying the drama on the box then a game of Spot the Baggy-Trousered Extra will get you through.

6. You’re not supposed to notice most of the outfits

There’s an easy rule of thumb to whether a costumier has done a good job or not: nobody has noticed their work. “Well, we shouldn’t be detracting from anything on screen,” explains Angel. “We try to avoid anything that stops you submerging into the world that the screen is creating.”

This commitment to blending into the background, however, can have major payoffs when a distinctive outfit does appear on-screen. “Whenever you talk to somebody about Atonement, it’s likely they’ll point towards that green dress Kiera Knightley wore in the library. Everyone remembers that,” says Angel.

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“But you don’t remember that because every other outfit was awful. You remember it because every other outfit up to that point was designed not to be as brightly coloured. The colour palate was designed that way.”

The same purposeful palate has painted the most memorable moments on screen, from the calming pink and blue in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest hotel to Walter White’s evolution from drably-dressed dad to brightly-coloured drug kingpin in Breaking Bad.

An easy example of colours running through a production is 2015 flick Brooklyn, which, like Atonement, distinguishes a character in a bright green amongst a sea of pale skin tones (see at the 1.04 mark below).

Yet some standout outfits aren’t intentional. Take Broadchurch. Most will probably say the most, if only, striking garment in the ITV drama is the orange kagool worn by Olivia Coleman. And it’s fair to presume that outfit was designed as a bright contrast against the grey myriad of outfits worn by the rest of the cast. It wasn’t.

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“That kagool was just supposed to fit in with the ethos of the show. All clothes were supposed to be real, normal. They were there to show that life goes on, even if a child is murdered,” explains Holman, costume designer on the ITV drama. “It was simply logical that Colman’s character – somebody who went on country walks – would have one.”

“Then what we found is that when we filmed at night it became something more. It looked gorgeous. It was then that Chris Chibnall [showrunner] said we need to use it more. It wasn’t planned that way at all though!”

7. Costumes are often re-used

And re-used again. Even on the biggest shows, all outfits aren’t made from scratch. For instance, although one of the most expensive dramas ever made, The Crown used a pre-made outfit for Claire Foy’s coronation gown.

“That dress was originally made for Harrods as a replica for the Jubilee, but it featured in The Crown because [Claire Foy] had the measurements to fit into that dress,” recalls Angel. “That dress was originally made close to The Queen’s actual measurements and at the time we never thought it would get used again!”

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Other outfits have had a string of screen appearances. The army uniforms worn by the likes of Hugh Bonneville on Downton Abbey are second-hand khaki, used by similar-sized extras and actors for years.

There’s also a myriad of recycled 18th century period dresses that are repeatedly re-used as so few actually exist. For example, the gown worn by Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles, below right) in Doctor Who episode The Girl in the Fireplace was also donned by Jessica Brown Findlay in ITV Drama Harlots (below left).

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Recycled outfits are so prolific that second-hand spotting is a personal hobby for costume enthusiasts, with blogs dedicated with possible sightings. But sometimes even the most famous of outfits can go through several films without being recognised.

The prime exhibit: Alec Guinness’s Jedi robe from Star Wars. Thought by many to be missing for thirty years, the famous brown gown was actually out on a series of shoots and fancy dress parties.

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“When we get an outfit back from a film, our aim is to normally get it cleaned ASAP so another can use the costume. So by the time the film has come out an outfit could have been taken out on another shoot. The Alec Guinness robe went back into stock after Star Wars and reused on extras in Willow and The Mummy and then put on a massive rack of brown gowns. For three decades it was then a party monk’s outfit or a wise man in nativity plays.”

“It was only caught out when somebody was tidying that rail pointed out it looked a little like the Obi-Wan-Kenobi robe – it had a hood unlike the others. Then we re-watched the film and contacted the original designer to check the administrative details. It was the right one!”

And it wasn’t simply a sentimental discovery – when Angels put the iconic robe up for auction in 2007 it was sold for £54,000. Not bad for an old hoodie.

8. You can send back the costumes from set caked in mud

Which comes in handy if you’re filming a scene in the trenches. “As long as it doesn’t change the shape of the costume, a show can modify it. And if it’s not messed up to a certain point where we can’t clean it off then that’s fine. If it’s covered it dirt we’ll just put it through one of our laundries,” says Angel.

Yes, that was ‘laundries’ – owing to the thousands of outfits that pass through their doors every week, Angels hires out three laundrettes and another trio of dry cleaners to maintain their clothes.

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Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End, wearing an army uniform supplied by Angels

But what happens if you need a partly-destroyed outfit for a show? They’re built from scratch. “If a uniform needs to be riddled with bulletholes or soaked in blood then we’ll speak to the stunt coordinators,” says Angel. “If a show wants an outfit on fire then that has to be built from scratch. Although the film may portray the costume as getting blown up, the shell-shocked actor is normally wearing an entirely new outfit.”

9. No, the armour you see on-screen won’t be real armour

That chainmail you’ve seen on Game of Thrones or Vikings? It simply isn’t. Rather than real armour it’s far likely to be a woollen chain spray-painted jumper a metallic colour, rather than the real thing. And if not knitmail, the armour is likely to be rubber, lightweight aluminium or basically anything but iron or steel.

And the reason is just what you’d expect: the real thing is just too heavy. In fact, your average suit of armour weighs between 30 and 50kg, about the weight of a 10-year-old child. And as a University of Leeds study found, this means any action in armour uses twice the energy it normally would – that’s enough to turn any 10-hour shoot into a battle.

Instead, showrunners turn to faux armour to improve actors’ mobility and help them get through a scene without collapsing. “And the great thing about that is that you really can’t tell it’s fake,” claims Angel.“You can watch most big medieval battles – film or TV – and never spot what’s from a fake armoury.”

Well, almost all the time, we should add. Who can forget Kit Harington’s “Valyrian rubber” sword during Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards?

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But hey, if Longclaw was only chopping into rubber armour then we’ll call that an even (and dangerously elastic) fight.

10.  Historical dramas are causing a costume drought

Yes, we’re treated to a string of high-quality dramas. But there’s another name for our golden age of screen: peak TV. There might simply be too much TV to watch, but more importantly, too much to provide the outfits for – especially for the appropriately-named costume dramas.

“The only thing that’s put a strain on us in the past year or so is when shows work within the same historical period,” reveals Angel. “It’s been to a level where we haven’t seen before – two or three other productions are always in the same period. You could start with one film set in the 1800s and I guarantee by the end of four weeks time they’ll be another three productions all in the same period.”

“And these period costumes aren’t the easiest outfits to work with. You can’t just go off the street and find them,” adds Angel. “Those clothes have got to be specially cleaned and maintained.”

So, while we’re spoilt with scripted dramas such as Poldark, Taboo, Harlots and Victoria – the production of all three at once stretches costume supply to the limit. And then there’s Peaky Blinders, The Durrells, Decline and Fall and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, whose settings also overlap. And also shows Game of Thrones and shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom. These herds of historical shows all need costumes and often the same ones.

And not to worry you, but judging how period dramas are increasingly in style, with more and more money pumped into hit series like The Crown, we might see the historical costume business burst at the seams.

You never know,  in future TV may produce more clothes-light dramas like Versailles out of sheer necessity. We’ll leave it up to you whether that’s a good thing or not.

11. Video games are massive business for costume makers

High-tech computer graphics are hitting the costume industry below the belt, rendering outfits without actually having to hire any out, right? Well, the shoe is actually on the other foot. 

“Sure, films like the original Ben Hurr with thousands of extras are rare these days, but the future is still bright for costumes thanks to video games,” explains Angel.  “We are getting a lot of companies hiring out clothes to base their designs on because they want it to look as real as possible and they can now achieve that. If you think about all these period games coming out, they all need to base their ideas on real costumes.”

Indeed, even video games employ big name costume designers to construct GC characters. For instance, Rockstar hired Lyn Paolo, Emmy-award-winning designer from The West Wing, to dress characters for Grand Theft Auto 5. Actors were 3D-scanned wearing her costumes, with these looks actually used in the game.

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And Rockstar is just one of the 2,141 active games companies in the UK, part of an business worth £4.33bn in this country alone – that’s fast catching up with the entire screen industry (film and TV is worth an estimated £6bn). So don’t expect the costume industry to buckle in future, but don’t be surprised when its focus becomes avatars over actors.