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Inside Surrey Arts Wardrobe

PUBLISHED: 11:21 31 March 2009 | UPDATED: 12:07 16 May 2014

Customer Laraine Doyle rifles through the rails at Surrey Arts Wardrobe

Customer Laraine Doyle rifles through the rails at Surrey Arts Wardrobe

Buried away in a quiet corner of Woking is possibly the county's best-kept secret - one of the biggest collections of fancy dress costumes anywhere in the country, Surrey Arts Wardrobe. JANET HARMER pays a visit

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2009


Situated in a utilitarian building in the grounds of a Woking primary school, the exterior of Surrey Arts Wardrobe belies the treasures found inside.

Once through the doors, you discover what must be Surrey County Council's best-kept secret. For inside, crammed from floor to ceiling, is a true treasure trove of theatrical costumes, accessories and props. An extensive collection of outfits from every historical era is housed here and is available for hire for any stage production or fancy dress events.

"People always seem surprised to find us as they previously never knew we existed," says newly-appointed wardrobe manager Katy May, who has been hired to re-launch and raise the profile of the facility.

"My goal is that Surrey Arts Wardrobe is the first port of call for anyone who wants to hire a costume in the county. We have an extensive range of costumes, including outfits depicting ancient Rome and Egypt, the Middle Ages and Victorian eras, as well as 20th century and contemporary fashions. We really do have something for everyone."

Dressed to kill
Surrey Arts Wardrobe was originally set up by Surrey County Council in the early 1980s to handle the growing number of costumes accumulated by the Surrey Youth Theatre, which was founded in 1976. Today, as well as housing its own collection, it also looks after costumes belonging to a number of amateur dramatic groups and schools from around the county.

Katy believes there are probably around 7,500 individual outfits in the collection, as well as more than 22,000 accessories ranging from hats, caps and bonnets, through to jewellery, shoes and handbags. There is also an extensive range of underwear and corsetry.

Highlights include a selection of vintage outfits from the post 1940s; an original Women's Voluntary Service uniform from 1940, including a coat and beret; and some unusual and superb quality 17th century reproduction men's doublets.

With two degrees - a BA in costume design and a MA in the history of textiles and dress - Katy is the ideal person to breathe new life into the collection. She also brings to Surrey Arts Wardrobe a wealth of experience in the field of costume design, having worked on The Inspector Lynley Mysteries for the BBC, with the Welsh National Opera and for Angels, the world's largest costumiers.

Katy worked as a costumier in the women's wear department at Angels, where she liaised with costume designers from theatre productions, films, television programmes and advertising shoots. As a result, she worked with the Young Vic theatre, the film of Mrs Henderson Presents and the BBC TV series Restoration.

"I have a great love of social history and fashion design and love to combine the two in period costumes," says Katy. "I particularly love the research involved in putting together a costume from a particular period. If I had to choose a favourite period, it would probably be the years from medieval through to Tudor times. I also love clothing from the 18th century."

A learning curve
One of the major challenges of her new job is to develop the educational programme of Surrey Arts Wardrobe, through its links with schools, museums and galleries.

"We want to hold interactive workshops for children, which are a fantastic and immediate way of engaging young people with history," she says. "By getting children into character through costumes, which are very different from the clothes they wear today, they get to really think about the way people lived."

Contacts have already been made with Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge, where costume 'play days' have been organised, and at Haslemere Museum. Meanwhile, a workshop of Victorian costumes, currently being discussed with the Watts Gallery in Compton, looks set to be an exciting project for the future.

Katy is also responsible for the reorganisation and overhaul of the collection. With many costumes having not been properly maintained in recent years, she and her one full-time colleague, senior wardrobe assistant, Lizzie Bruce,
have many hundreds of repairs ahead of them.

They have recently been joined by a part-time assistant, Kerry Sandy, but they are also looking for up to five volunteers to join them.

"We need help with everything from stitching on buttons to repairing complex lace work," says Katy. "We would love to hear from anyone with a couple of hours to spare who is interested in joining us. We would also be interested in anyone who would be willing to donate any period costumes or clothing.

"Our collection of women's clothes is fairly comprehensive, but we are always looking for more children and men's outfits."

Fancy that!
While Surrey Arts Wardrobe is an important community resource, it is also a burgeoning commercial enterprise, with the hiring of some 60 per cent of its costumes being used in theatre productions and the rest for fancy dress events.

"We hold a much broader range of costumes here than a fancy dress shop and we encourage people to come and have some fun with the clothes," says Katy. "We usually tell customers to allow at least an hour to put an outfit together as there's so much to choose from here!"

What is more, not only can you have hours of fun at Surrey Arts Wardrobe, but it is also a wonderful location to learn a little more about how generations before us lived.

One thing's for sure, I know where I'll be heading next time I have a fancy dress invite...


Surrey Arts Wardrobe: THE FACTS

Based at Westfield Primary School in Bonsey Lane, Woking,

Surrey Arts Wardrobe is open on Tuesdays from 10am to 5pm, Wednesdays from 10am to 7pm, Thursdays from 2pm to 5pm and Fridays from 10am to 5pm.

The average hire price for an adult costume for one week is £42, including maintenance, cleaning and VAT. Discounts can be arranged for the hire of five or more costumes. "We will also work to specific budgets of theatre groups," says Katy.

  • To book an appointment at Surrey Arts Wardrobe, call them on 01483 721697

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