31 October 1997

No end of hire jinks with fancy dress

Choosing fancy dress can be almost as much fun as

going to the party as Tessa Gates found when she

met the women behind the costumes at Simms Farm

YOU cant help but giggle when you enter a barn and find a row of huge cartoon heads staring at you. Even the partners running Bees Costume Hire find it hard to take their work too seriously, judging by the amount of laughter they share.

In fact, a party seems rather an anti-climax after the fun of choosing an outfit from the 1000 or so Linda Deeley and Jenny Shouler have for hire at Simms Farm, Chesterton, near Bicester in Oxon.

The pair, who have run the business for the past eight years, are both farmers wives. Lindas husband, John, farms 243ha (600 acres) of arable land at Simms Farm and Jennys husband, Frank, has a 202ha (500-acre) mixed enter-prise at Elm Tree Farm, Wendlebury, Oxon. They were looking for a diversification to run when a friend suggested costume hire and knew of a well stocked business for sale.

"I said absolutely not – I thought they would be dirty, smelly old clothes," recalls Jenny.

"But the reality is that the clothes are washed or dry cleaned between each wearing, and suddenly Linda and Jenny found themselves with 100s of costumes and people coming in to hire them within hours of moving them into the dutch barn.

"When we first took them on, if someone mixed up the parts of a costume we didnt know exactly where everything came from. Now we know every piece," says Linda.

&#42 Henry V111 outfit

And that takes a bit of doing when you can offer a Henry VIII padded outfit, a Michael Jackson mask and just about everything in between from the beautiful to the bizarre. They can meet most requests even if some call for a bit of ingenuity, but a recent demand for Viking costumes had them beat.

"The caller wanted 200! I said we can give you two," says Linda.

The enterprise draws customers from a huge area. Halloween and New Year are peak times, but they have a surprisingly large clientele year-round requesting outfits for weddings – real weddings.

"We do a lot of "medieval" weddings – even the vicar got dressed up for one of them," explains Jenny.

"Themed weddings seem to be very popular. We are just completely remaking a Sir Walter Raleigh outfit for a bridegroom as we didnt feel he could really walk down the aisle in the one we had."

The ladies dont make the costumes themselves usually, but Jenny can make a fresh copy if she has the old one to pull to pieces for a pattern. Mostly they buy them from a place in Gainsborough that supplies anything and everything in materials that can be machine washed.

&#42 Big stitches

Linda is more at home doing the book-keeping than repairs. "But I can do big stitches," she laughs, "and they are fine for a temporary alterations."

Murder mystery parties, 50s,60s and 70s nights, film star parties and hero and heroine themes are all popular, and Halloween brings more and more business each year. "People are learning it is not just witches. Halloween was very popular with the Americans before they left the base at Upper Heyford. The Americans were big customers for us generally and whole squadrons would wear medieval dress when they went for a night out to War-wick, as they called it," says Jenny, adding that they do not hire out childrens clothes.

All hiring is done by appointment with customers ringing first. This means that the women can share the work without both of them being on call all the time. While Farmlife was in the barn an inquiry came in from a local pub seeking a Carmen Miranda outfit for a publicity shoot, and someone to wear it if possible. While they didnt fancy turning models for the day, nothing phases Linda and Jenny now, since their baptism of fire into the costume hire business.

"Just after we opened the business, I was at home when I got an urgent call from Linda, telling me to come over as quickly as possible," remembers Jenny. "Two men had telephoned to say they were on their way and wanted her to dress them as women – proper women not the drag variety."

Linda was a bit unnerved at this and didnt know what to think, particularly when they arrived in full make-up. "It turned out that one chap was getting married and the other was his best man and they wanted to infiltrate the brides hen party without being discovered," says Linda. "We laughed and laughed while we got them ready, and I have to say they had wonderful legs. They were looking quite good except that they didnt have any boobs."

"I offered them coconut shells but they wouldnt have that," recalls Jenny. "When I explained we didnt stock bras, they said well, what are you two wearing."

Never ones to let customers down they did a quick change and with cries of "Oh they are still warm", two new women went off into the night. They gate-crashed the party and went undiscovered until a male stripper refused to start his act until the two men were removed from the room. "We are all women" chorused the audience, but the stripper outed the pair.

&#42 Bras burned

"We couldnt bring ourselves to wear the bras again – when they came back I said burn them," says Linda, adding "We have never taken anything off for clients since." And the pair dissolve into laughter again.

"It is a fun place here and the moment people come in we start to giggle. We hear people laughing in the changing room and insist they come out and show us what they look like – we tell them it is a condition of hire," says Linda. The hire charge is just £20 no matter how complicated the costume.

Ever on the lookout for new ideas they have been known to accost people in the street, while on holiday in America, to find our where they had purchased their "tandem" fancy dress outfits, which look as if the wearer is riding piggy back.

But fancy dress parties are something they rarely give themselves nowadays, although Jenny was in for a surprise on her 50th birthday. Linda organised a brass band and 15 characters in fancy dress to march up the long farm drive to play for her.

"We get on very well and have never had a cross word," says Jenny. "The business only brings a pocket money income, but it doesnt tie us as we work a week each. And it is good fun."

Inquiries: (01869-343434)

Jenny (below left) and Linda enjoy running their fancy dress business and are not averse to trying on the costumes themselves (right).

The piggy-back clown outfit was spotted in America and imported.