Imagine a world where you can be anything or anyone. Cruella De Ville? Alice the Camel? Crazy scientist? Whatever your desire, Louise Evans has got your back. In a warehouse nestled away in a corner of the city, her huge collection of theatrical costumes sits waiting patiently to stimulate and complement future imaginations – yes, it’s the marvellous Nottingham Community Wardrobe...
“Wigs. People love wigs,” says Louise, as we browse her collection of headgear.
Back in 2018, Poetry is Dead Good’s Stephen Thomas had the genius idea of organising a rap battle between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, hosted by Maid Mazza, for Nottingham Poetry Festival. A week before the show, we hovered outside a car wash on Carlton Hill wondering if we were at the right place.
We were looking for Nottingham Community Wardrobe – the tucked-away not-for-profit, headed by director Louise Evans, that rents costumes to local am-dram groups and schools. We eventually unearthed the building, buzzed at the door and entered a colourful, Narnia-like world of wigs, hats, wands, swords, and railings stuffed with every costume you can imagine. Louise has never counted them, but says her predecessor Alastair Conker estimates 40,000 to be hanging up in the building.
I’d been appointed as Maid Mazza. As I was getting kitted out, I remembered the dressing-up box I owned as a kid, how I pretended to be an old lady one minute, a pirate the next. On the evening of the rap battle down at Fox & Grapes, I nervously changed into my beautiful blue, long-sleeved dress, and this lairy, Medieval madam came out with full force. Something weird happens when you put on a costume.
“Kids get so much from drama,” says Louise, when we meet a year later. “You know when they're young and they're a bit shy, you just don't know who’s capable of doing what. You have to give kids all the opportunities they can get, and it gives them so much confidence. I offer this thing called a free approval. When teachers have chosen the costumes, if the kids need a bit of a boost, they get to try them on. Simba puts on his mane and suddenly becomes Simba. They just become that part, that character. It’s great. It encourages them to learn their lines and learn the songs.”
Louise has seen a decline in requests from schools over the years, with teachers citing a lack of funding and some of them even paying for costumes out of their own pocket. This year, Louise leant out to a handful of schools for free because “Well, it’s for the kids, isn’t it?”
We have to keep drama in schools. It's vital.
Louise’s background is as a seamstress: “I find sewing really relaxing. When things come in damaged, the seam's gone, and it's an old tailcoat or something, I think 'Lovely, I can spend half an hour sewing that.' I put the radio on and just sew things up. I get a lot of satisfaction from that.”
Before delving into the world of theatre, Louise used to make handmade curtains and blinds from home, selling them via a Twitter page. Following a suggestion from her daughter, who was involved with Nottingham Arts Theatre at the time, she offered her services to the Community Wardrobe as a volunteer: “I did Joseph with forty-eight children, and I just loved it. I worked on a couple of shows at the Arts Theatre. I loved being with other people – the kids, particularly.”
After getting involved and making friends with its previous managers, Louise was asked to stay at the Community Wardrobe. “It's funny, I came here just working part-time and now I run it,” she says.
The Wardrobe was almost closed due to cuts a few years ago, so the Council asked if Louise wanted to take it on. After some encouragement from her husband, she accepted. “He said, ‘Just think of all the kids, Louise. They’ll come back in September and there'll be no costumes.’ A bit of emotional blackmail, really!” And Louise took over.
“I've had to learn accountancy and invoicing and all that sort of stuff,” she says. “But I think we're doing alright.”
Louise still works with Nottingham Arts Theatre, as well as Nottingham Playhouse, Theatre Royal, Television Workshop, and schools and am-dram groups from all over the East Midlands. She’s thought about renting out stuff for stag and hen dos as an extra revenue stream, but the focus for Louise is on the kids and community projects.
“Ofsted have said they're now looking at the wider curriculum,” says Louise. “So hopefully schools will start to use us more again if they need to do a couple of shows a year. I still want to be here for them.”
The place feels like a hidden goldmine. I could spend hours moving among the personalities and stories of every item of clothing. As we walk around looking at different sections, Louise talks lovingly about the different pieces and their memories.
“I lost this mermaid tail once,” she says, stroking the shiny turquoise and purple scales hanging above us. “I know where all my costumes are and if things go missing, I know.”
We move through the panto aisle, the military aisle, the animal aisle, cloaks and magicians. “I do love the cloaks, they're so swirly,” smiles Louise. “This is all Spanish up here. I got a beautiful donation from Legally Blonde, the touring show. I am very lucky, we get people thinking of us.
“A lot of my costumes come from old theatrical costumers, so I have some valuable vintage stuff too. Although they probably need some repair, they would’ve been used on stage by people in Nottingham maybe even eighty years ago.”
Living in the thick of a throwaway society, it’s refreshing to see the life that exists in the rails, ready and waiting to be reused. “When they're on their last breath with one button too many missing, I use them for Les Mis and Oliver as they're all slightly distressed,” says Louise, flicking through a few outfits with paper labels attached. “This is my repair rail. I've got people to come in and help me repair things.
“I can't put things in landfill, I just can't. I have to find a home for them, otherwise it's just so wasteful. I've always said, ‘Don't buy loads of cheap clothes.’ You don't know where they've been made or who's not been paid a fair amount of money for making them, so just buy English-made things or try to know where it's come from. And buy quality things that last – it’s better for the environment and for the world.”
It’s a landmark of rebellion against those who don’t value creativity in how it transforms society for the better, and those who are short-sighted in fuelling the future of it.
I can’t help but think that the fibres of the Wardrobe hold an ethic and an attitude that could benefit so many other aspects of our community. It’s colourful, collaborative, hands-on and sustainable. Places like Hackspace, AMC Gardens and the local libraries spring to mind. Not to be dramatic – pardon the pun – but there’s something special about Louise and Nottingham Community Wardrobe that goes beyond it being simply a room full of clothes. It’s a landmark of rebellion against those who don’t value creativity in how it transforms society for the better, and those who are short-sighted in fuelling the future of it.
“The entertainment industry in the UK is huge,” says Louise. “Where do all those people come from? They get that drive by learning about theatre when they're young, don't they? That's when the actors, directors and costumers of tomorrow are born. We have to keep drama in schools. It's vital.”
When I ask Louise about her favourite costumes, she quickly points out the dame section: “For all my school pantomimes, they'll get the deputy head to be the dame. One of the two ugly sisters will be played by the big, rugby-playing PE teacher. They get quite into it, start putting on the dresses, asking if I’ve got a better bra with bigger boobs.”
I laugh as I drag my hand through the row of Medieval dresses once again, arriving at a blend of dark and pale blues. I wonder if Louise sneaks down here at night, when nobody else is around, trying on all the outfits, assuming different characters?
“Funnily enough, I've never really tried anything on,” she says. “I mean, I’ll put on the odd hat or coat for customers but never really… Tell a lie. I had a chap here on work experience and one day he appeared in high heels and a Rio de Janeiro headdress. He said 'I just couldn't help myself! You've got to join in!’ So I put on a skirt and hat with him. That was funny.”
Join us for LeftLion Live: Christmas Extravaganza at Nonsuch Studios on Friday 20 December, 7pm, where MissImp will be utilising a selection of Nottingham Community Wardrobe costumes to deliver Overheard in Notts on Stage! Raising money for Emmanuel House. Tickets available from wearenonsuch.com
Nottingham Community Wardrobe, Brentcliffe Avenue, NG3 7AG. 0115 915 0114