With Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest street carnival in Europe, being just around the corner, we interviewed Helen to learn more about the costumes she designs, and her experiences of working/participating in the Notting Hill Carnival for the last 15 years. She has been a costume maker and designer for 18 years with carnivals around the world, including places like India and Trinidad, as well as the UK.
When asked about why she loves the carnival, she said “I was blown away by the fantasy, the creative imagination and size of the costumes,” and her favourite part of it is “decorating and actually performing in the carnival”
Helen runs sessions in Paddington Arts Centre, as well as within schools, clubs and hospices to teach people about working with silk, stenciling and large-scale costumes. This includes headdresses, masks, backpacks and much more.
“Sometimes I can be so busy I have to employ people and sometimes I could not be busy for three months, so that’s how it goes and you have to weigh it all up, but I’m doing something that I like doing.”
“I’ve been doing lots of work with children for other carnivals like Bristol Carnival and also Hackney Carnival with elderly people (80+ year olds) from a hospice.”
“We’ve been preparing for the carnival – starting with designs – since the 18th of November, but a few weeks ago we actually nailed it down to what we are doing. I’ve worked with 5 other designers to produce about 35 costumes for children and adults.”
As we look around the room, the walls are crowded with impressive evidence of all the team’s hard work; there are a variety of skills shown through the designs of prints and silk batik to adorn the trucks, done by children earlier in the week.
The biggest and heaviest costumes (the king and queen outfits) have to be worn by hired, experienced professionals to wear because the parade lasts 9 hours each day (for one circuit!) and they need to be “used to wearing costumes and be able to make it look elegant on the road without it looking like you’re struggling with it”. These costumes also require the wearer to inhabit a character, which the professionals enjoy (like actors/resses), as they like to “show off and want to get into it in order to bring it to life.”
“To be in it and to be an observer are two different things”. She says that when “you’re part of it, you don’t really see the crowd, you’re just focused and you’re having fun and it’s brilliant; a brilliant vibe. Everyone is clapping and cheering and taking hundreds of photos and afterwards they’re all buzzing.”
Helen says that anyone can volunteer to take part and “I bet once you’ve done it once, you’ll come back, because you realise what it’s all about.”
Each year, there’s a different theme to the carnival and this year it’s ‘Flight and Fantasy’. The theme comes through in the costumes “For flight: birds, wings, feathers. Fantasy: you can just go wild.“
Helen has made 35 individual children’s costumes and produced 200 t-shirts to be worn by adults and teenagers, but there are also some people who just turn up in their own outfits, which adds to the spirit and sense of involvement of the carnival.
“Everyone’s got their own style of music or dress; it’s an eclectic mix of party people. And then there’s all these amazing, extravagant costumes floating in between it all.”
She says there are “Television crews everywhere, all looking for something that’s different with the costumes.”
The funding for the costumes comes from the arts council and sponsorships, and this allows the company Helen works for to employ artists, who create designs and decide what direction the costumes will take. “You even get some people who just so want to do it that they’ll make it off their own back; they’ll make the money.”
But will everything be ready in time? “Yeah, I’ll be working day and night and I’ve got helpers now,” she replies with confidence.
According to Helen, the carnival mainly appeals to youth, some families and 20-30 year olds.
“The first day is the more child and family-friendly day, where they show all the children’s costumes; it’s more family-based and the procession isn’t as long, so it finishes earlier, while the one on Monday is just “party, party, party, everywhere! Monday is the main day that everyone comes to watch; it’s the one you really don’t want to miss.”
If you partake in the procession, Helen assures that “you’ll be having so much fun that you won’t realise until later on the next day that you can’t walk properly – your legs have seized up”
She says it is quite an expensive endeavour, due to the size and amount of costumes, in addition to the 3 big trucks and sound systems that accompany the performers. However, carnivals are a big business because of all the related jobs that people commonly overlook, such as makeup artists, photographers, musicians, etc.
Most people who come every year compare the experience to previous years: “everyone’s got their own opinion.”
To improve the experience for the performers, Helen thinks that the route could be shortened and that if barriers were in place by Ladbroke Grove, it would be a lot safer: “everyone’s right next to you and if there was a crowd rush, it would be quite dangerous.”
The procession that Helen is part of normally starts at 12 and finishes at 9:30pm.
If you are keen to see more carnivals, Helen recommends visiting India for their carnival in Calcutta or Venice Carnival, which she describes as “very beautiful, ornate and like stepping back into the 17th century. The architecture is beautiful and there’s just boats everywhere- no cars, no bikes. It’s stunning.”
Good luck Helen and all of the Paddington Arts carnival team!
By Isabella Davidson and Sophia Brown