Dress Circle’s remarkable cornucopia of theatrical costumes on Haxby farm are up for sale at Ryedale Auctioneers till May 11

Jill and Stephen Outhwaite at their Dress Circle of York costume-hire emporium

THE sale of contents from Stephen and Jill Outhwaite’s costume-hire emporium Dress Circle of York is running online until May 11.

When the final curtain fell on their 18-year business in converted buildings at the Outhwaite family farm at Low Grange Farm, Haxby, on December 19 2020, they said: “Ideally we’d like to sell Dress Circle as a going concern, and we’d love it to go locally preferably.”

No such scenario has played out, although Sian Thomas’s Silver Linings Theatrical Costumiers and Liam and Owen Nardone from Nardone’s Academy of Performing Arts, in Lochgelly, Fife, Scotland, have made significant purchases.

“We did try to sell Dress Circle as a business, but it was just too big and made more difficult by Covid,” says Jill. “It’s a shame as it would have been nice for it to have gone to one site but it wasn’t possible.”

The remaining items – 1,288 lots in total – are being auctioned by Ryedale Auctioneers, Angus Ashworth’s Kirkbymoorside firm that features in the television series The Yorkshire Auction House.

“A team of four from the auctioneers has been cataloguing the auction over three weeks for the largest single stock sale of its kind they have ever done,” says Stephen.

Viewing days will be held at Low Grange Farm, off Moor Lane, Haxby, on May 7, 9 and 10 from 10am to 4pm, with the auctioneers in attendance on the Tuesday and Wednesday. Alternatively, viewing by appointment can be arranged by contacting Jill by email at jill_outhwaite@btconnect.com.

Full details of this timed auction, concluding at 7pm on May 11, can be found at ryedaleauctioneers.com/upcoming-auctions, where you can view the catalogue and register to bid.

The auction includes vintage wedding dresses; full and part sets, from a family of squirrel costumes to dresses for My Fair Lady, costumes for White Christmas and full sets for Monty Python’s Spamalot and ’Allo ’Allo!; more than 1,000 hats; two massive boxes of former Opera North costumes for Nabucco; stage make-up; theatre props and much more. View the lots at https://bit.ly/43BQOXF

“Before our retirement, we were the biggest business of our type in the North East,” says Jill. “We covered as far as Blyth, in Northumberland, down to north Lincolnshire.

Dames’ dresses by the dozen at Dress Circle of York

“I’ve counted up the number of companies, schools, film companies, event companies and more that we dealt with, and I’m sure I’ve missed out some, but it must have been around 160, and then there were all the individuals over the years too,” says Jill.

York Stage, York Light Opera, Rowntree Players, Bev Jones Music Company, Helmsley Arts Centre’s 1820 Theatre Company and Stephen Tearle’s NE Musicals York were among the companies grateful to theatre costumiers Stephen and Jill and their team of Sophie, Sue, Elaine, Caroline, Emily, Susan and Guy.

So too were Hessle Theatre Company, Be Amazing and Pauline Quirke Academy (James Aconley), Pauline Quirke Academy in Harrogate, Stockport and Halifax, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield and Panto Ever After in Halifax and Marsden.

Many a farm has diversified, whether into ice cream, maze attractions, fields for solar-heating generation or wedding party teepees, wind farms, holiday cottages, film studios, business parks, beer breweries, the list goes on…

But theatrical costume hire? Pantomimes, fancy dress, make-up and accessories too, that is another world, one of fantasy, fable and fabulous fun. “Dress Circle of York came into being in 2002 when Jill and I brought the theatrical costume-hire business into an empty barn,” says Stephen, who has a history of acting, directing, set building, applying theatrical make-up and running a youth theatre [he founded and ran Flying Ducks Youth Theatre in York for many years].

“Combined with Jill’s experience of costuming shows and a history degree and encouraged by the Government and our accountant to diversify, when the farming wasn’t that good, we took the first step into developing Dress Circle, acquiring stock from Geraldine Jevons and Sue Morris.

“The business grew and developed in a way not dreamt of, as we built up a team of staff with a wealth and diversity of experience in costume and the theatrical world.”

In a normal year, from the end of October through to early December would be Dress Circle’s busiest time. “On average, we dressed 30 shows in those few weeks,” says Jill.

Not only theatre companies called on their Aladdin’s barn of costume opportunities. So too did those seeking clothes for weddings and even funerals; war-themed weekends; big parties with a dress code; bikers gathering in Helmsley for a charity Christmas ride and vintage car enthusiasts headed for the Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex.

Everything could be found, from Lady Gaga and Tina Turner styles to Madonna cones; from Victorian and Edwardian clothes, through Seventies’ Glam to the modern day; from the full kit bag for Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast and Monty Python’s Spamalot to a Gruffalo; from Father Christmas outfits to The Pink Panther.

Re-living 1980s’ fashion at Dress Circle of York

No fewer than 16,000 costumes and much more besides: hats and more hats; prop after prop; military attire; blazers and tailcoats; socks and handkerchiefs; umbrellas and swords; waistcoats up to a 60-inch chest, ties, scarves, suits-you-sir suits, dress upon dress. Aprons. Everything a panto dame could dream of matching with bold lippy and a wig. Anything for a Steampunk sci-fi enthusiast.

So much glamour, such theatrical flourish, awaited visitors to these most untheatrical of premises. “It was built for cattle, and over the years we had pigs and grain in it too,” says Stephen.

“We insulated all the walls, but heating-wise you don’t want gas because it puts moisture into the atmosphere and electricity is expensive, so I enquired about a wood burner.”

No ordinary wood burner, but one as big as a fledgling dancer’s dreams. “We got it from Dowling Stoves in Scotland, though originally he was from Helmsley,” says Stephen. “It’s been the only heating we need in here; it keeps a nice dry barn, really good for drying costumes.”

Costumes have been leaving Dress Circle gradually since the 2020 closure. “One of the first people to contact us after we decided to sell Dress Circle costumes individually was Sian Thomas, from South Yorkshire, who as well as being a freelance costumier is also head of wardrobe for Hull Truck Theatre and had hired from us in the past,” says Jill.

“Sian, who has mainly late 19th and 20th century costumes, wanted to start up her own hire company on a smaller scale with the prospects of growing in the future and we were delighted to help.”

When Nardone’s Academy of Performing Arts heard of Dress Circle’s closure, enquiries were made over costume sales. “They wanted costumes for their own shows as they do about six a year and to start a theatrical costume hire company to supply other theatrical companies in their area,” says Jill. 

“They’ve been down twice to see us and are coming again to collect the rest of their costumes in the near future.”

What will happen after May 11? “It depends if everything sells; if we can then empty the building at last,” says Stephen. “Angus [Ashworth], from Ryedale Auctioneers, has said they could take whatever costumes are left to sell at the auction house.”

Not all theatrical enterprises will be ending at Low Grange Farm. Flying Ducks continue to rehearse in one of the buildings and Stephen is still making set designs, keeping that wood burner alight.