Vania Wells started Gladrags Community Costume Resource back in 1994. “I’d been working in community theatre and was also a care worker,” she explains. “I started doing informal reminiscence work with some of the older people I cared for, talking to them about the 1930s, with music and clothes from their younger days.” Vania started to build up a collection of clothes and other memorabilia that she then began lending out informally to others. “Gladrags really grew organically out of that,” she says.
The resource comprises of over 5,000 costumes and other items and brings the magic of costumes to community groups and organisations, including children and young people projects, schools, colleges and amateur and fringe arts. The group received a grant of £4,765 from our Marit and Hans Rausing Fund to support workshops for eight-11 year olds. The sessions will teach the children practical sewing skills and provide dress-up activities for younger children (aged three-12) with the aim of increasing social interaction and encouraging creative play. Gladrags targets children who experience disadvantage of various kinds and live in the deprived areas of Brighton, Newhaven and Worthing. The group prioritises children with special educational needs, traveller children and young carers. Activities take place in accessible community venues such as local libraries and children’s centres, delivered by a sessional worker and supported by a team of 10-12 volunteers.
In addition to the funded workshops, Gladrags offers a low-cost hire service too and is widely used by schools in the area for all manner of activities, like school history days. “Costume is really transforming,” says Vania. “In many of the schools we work with, the children don’t come from families where there is a big dressing-up box on hand. Putting on a costume makes them take the whole activity much more seriously. They get into character and it doesn’t feel like them anymore.”
Gladrags also works closely with local colleges, such as St John’s special school in Brighton, to offer work experience to young people with learning difficulties. When we visited, Charlie Ries-Coward, 19, was on a work placement, accompanied by his support worker, Isobel Gilles (both pictured). “I want to be an actor,” says Charlie. “I’d like to play a villain on TV or in films.”