Visit the biggest wardrobe in Suffolk

NOBODY in Ipswich can ever claim they have nothing to wear, if they consider hiring an outfit from the Co-op Juniors - there are 25,000 to choose from! Features editor TRACEY SPARLING steps in to what must be Suffolk's biggest wardrobe.

By Tracey Sparling

NOBODY in Ipswich can ever claim they have nothing to wear, if they consider hiring an outfit from the Co-op Juniors - there are 25,000 to choose from! Features editor TRACEY SPARLING steps in to what must be Suffolk's biggest wardrobe.

LURKING in a cardboard box in one corner is a 'big grey monster' - 'with hands.'

Beside that, a reindeer head is stacked against cartons of baby camels.

No I'm not at some macabre zoo, but in an Ipswich warehouse where a team of women are currently knee-deep in bags full of costumes of all shapes and sizes.

This is the Co-op Juniors' giant wardrobe, which is enjoying its busiest time of the year in the run up to their Christmas show, and the peak season for hiring out the outfits.

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Christmas Spectacular at Snape Maltings will be a high-energy music and dance extravaganza, celebrating the spirit of Christmas by the award-winning Suffolk entertainers. The cast of 100 are being decked out to sing dance and laugh their way through the festive season come the show's opening on December 13.

First comes a relentless marathon of designing, fabric choosing, cutting, sewing, and fittings.

For sequin supremos Pauline Walker and Jennie Ingram who are joint producers of the Co-op Juniors, the hectic schedule of the next few weeks is a feat they've managed many times in the past.

In fact for the last 30 years they have pinned and tucked, tested and tweaked thousands of outfits.

They offered me a rare insight in to what must be Suffolk's - and quite possibly England's - biggest wardrobe.

Peek inside and the sheer size of the place is awe-inspiring. I walked between rail upon rail of polythene-clad attire. Standing at one end, they stretch away in to the distance. You wonder how on earth they find anything specific.

The costumes now fill several rooms of the old warehouse - the location of which remains a closely guarded secret for security reasons. Pauline's best guess is that the wardrobe boasts a staggering 25,000 outfits, accumulated and updated over the 60 years the Co-op Juniors has been running.

Jeannie pulls out a little girl's flowered dress dating back to an early show called Lavender Blue and the pair happily reminisce.

As if they haven't got enough outfits already, the women make an incredible 500 more outfits every year - with help from an army of proud parents. Once they have been in the show, many are made available to hire out.

Pauline and Jeannie provide the material and cut it out, and parents pf the Co-op Juniors in the show, sew them together - with guidance from head of the costume department Pat Hogarth. It can be a daunting task to take a pair of scissors to the fine fabrics, so Pat's tuition helps allay any fears. Pauline laughs that in the end it can sometimes be the grandmothers of Co-op Juniors who run the costumes up, as many busy mums have little time, or knowledge of how to sew.

“It's an ongoing thing for us, because we've both been in the Co-op Juniors since we were children,” said Pauline. “Costumes are really important to the show, especially at Christmas and we have quite a high reputation to uphold.”

The pair have continued the strict rules set down by their predecessor Pat Monk, and Pauline said: “We have to be strict, down to the last half inch. It all has to be exactly spot on.”

You name the character - from Maria in the Sound of Music to a gingerbread man, and they've got the outfit. Or indeed a whole set of outfits, enough to fill a stage with spectacle.

Some are less flamboyant than others, some can be adapted to be used time and again.

I took up their invitation to try a few on.

Pauline and Jeannie selected the glamour of a fluffy white hat and red skirt of a Christmas dancer from the forthcoming show. I swirled in a twirl - but then to show the variety I had to don the hairy head of the beast from Beauty and the Beast.

From glam to grim, the transformation was instant!

Flicking my black dreadlocks over one shoulder I said I preferred the scarlet sparkles - even if the sleeves are a bit puffy for everyday wear.

But I'm not destined for the stage so I can't be a diva about it.

I just had to remember to remove the hairy hands, before heading back to the office.


The Co-op Juniors' Christmas Spectacular is at Snape Maltings on December 13-20, with tickets costing £15, £12 or £9. For more details see: or call 01728 687110.

Many of the Co-op Juniors' costumes are available for hire.

They are popular for fancy dress parties, school plays and book weeks, and Kentwell Hall outings.

The technical equipment like lights, microphones, speakers, amplifiers etc can also be hired.

You can even hire the Co-op Juniors as a group, for a dinner dance or party.

Fiona Gostling and Sue Newton were sorting out the returned costumes, as a steady succession of people trooped up the stairs laden with bagfuls of colourful attire. Last week about 100 costumes were hired out.

Fiona said: “It was really, really busy last week. Some people took six or seven bags of costumes away - we always say take more than you need so you can be sure they fit. You can always bring things that aren't needed, back to us before your party.

“Aladdin is very popular at the moment, as well as anything Christmassy. People always like to hire the rock and roll skirts - with their layers of netting they look great.”

Prices range from £10-£20 for adults, and £8-£15 for children. Costume prices are usually £10 for children and £12.50 for adults, with book week and Kentwell Hall costumes at £7.50.

To hire costumes, call Irene Fuller on 01449 674010 or Fiona on 01473 409096.

1939: The origins of the Co-op Juniors can be traced back to the beginning of the Second World War, when the Co-op Member Education Committee decided to provide local children with a leisure pursuit to take their minds off the traumas of wartime.

The first pantomime was held at Ipswich Art Gallery were Aladdin was staged by Sid Johnson. The committee decided to appoint Pat Monk and Joy Ledgerwood as 'directors' in succession to Mr Johnson.

Local boys and girls were encouraged to join the Co-op's dancing classes to learn ballet and tap with possible graduation in to the Co-op Juniors.

Early 1950s: As the standard improved, audiences grew, so a pantomime was held at the Spa pavilion in Felixstowe.

1970s: After more than 20 years Pat and Joy retired. In 1978 Richard Leggatt from Holbrook was appointed producer and in 1978 an agreement was reached for the group to perform at the Gaumont Theatre in Ipswich.

1985: Pauline and Jeannie were appointed joint producers, positions they hold to this day.

1997: A Christmas Carol, and Peter Pan won Top Entertainment Awards.

Today: During the past 22 years in the Regent at Ipswich, the Co-op Juniors have produced 29 shows, enjoyed by 410,000 patrons.