Special Feature: Notting Hill Carnival- How The Costumes Are Made

When you go to Notting Hill Carnival this weekend, chances are one in 5 of those costumes you’re potentially going to ooh and aww over were designed by mother and daughter creatives Maria and Sophia Joseph.

Both Maria and her 21-year-old daughter Sophia were hard at work when we saw them early in August, glueing and cutting away at pieces of cloth and other fabulous components that make up a typical band’s costume like feathers, glitters and sequins.

Maria is however quick to point out that while they might both be working off their behinds in the same workshop in an attempt to get the costumes ready before the deadline, this is no joint venture.

Maria started her costume production company Mardi Gras designs only recently. Up until three years ago, she worked in various positions as a beautician and educationist before dabbling into the colourful world of costume design.

Having come from a family who had a tradition of taking part in carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, it was only a matter of time before the mother of three came around to doing what she’d always wanted to do- art.

” I pretty much grew up within a family that took part in the Trinidad carnival,” she says. Unlike the Notting Hill Carnival, in Trinidad and Tobago, carnival is a national export says Maria. It’s 2 days of public holidays and it’s such a big deal that even the President of the country and other top government officials attend.

“Carnival is the highlight of the year for the majority of people in Trinidad,” she says. “It’s the one weekend everyone rich or poor, young or old all come together for 2 days of fun.”  “It’s so important that maria says even the crime rate is the lowest as people who would normally be out and about making trouble also join in the festivities.

I wonder why she didn’t start making costumes earlier since carnival was such a big part of her upbringing.

“I wasn’t able to pursue costume or that sort of thing in Trinidad and even though I wanted to go to University, unfortunately, that  didn’t happen because my family couldn’t afford it.”

So she moved to the UK with her husband and got a job working at her aunt’s beauty company where she was for 12 years working as a nail technician, teaching beauty as well as working as a placement officer.

A mum herself, she says she’s always been in education, having trained in Montessori and helped her sister’s company in making costumes for children and schools and educating them on carnival. “No matter how young or old, they always love the shiny costumes”, she says of the kids who partake in the workshops in schools in Haringey, Walthamstow and Wembley.

The idea that she could actually still pursue her dream of being a designer first came when she designed a costume for her daughter’s first ever carnival outing 21 years ago and the costume got so many reviews and publicity (even a feature in the Independent) that she started to think that maybe this could be an opportunity to explore her artistic side further.

Maria is one of a few entrepreneurs in the largely unchartered Costume making industry in the UK. Previously, Tourism boards got in commissioned people who then made the costumes to order. Most of these people were individuals who had other ‘main’ jobs and totally relied on the help of the Caribbean community to volunteer their time in order to help make the costumes in time for the carnival.

“The costume industry is a new industry,”says Maria. “There aren’t a lot of players in there, only about 6 people design for carnival as a full-time business.”

“Previously, it was a hobby thing and actually, the economy has gone in our favour. Before now, people come together after work to design the costume”, and this she says began to affect the quality of the costumes.  “For carnival in Notting Hill to survive, because the standard was starting to decline a bit because it was a hobby- the details weren’t there, they didn’t have time after work and it was becoming a strain.”

“It was difficult for people to come in and do extra work for two months for little money and churn out the quality that a Trinidadian designer who does it as a business would do.”

Looking at the costumes piled high on the work table in the workshop, I wondered if she’d had to undergo any formal training to be able to produce on this scale.

“I didn’t have any formal training,” she reveals with a satisfactory smile. “But I have always been into arts and wanted to study arts at Uni if I’d had the opportunity. My aunt who had a hair dressing salon and beauty school took on a franchise called Burrokeeds and made it into Burrokeeds UK.”

“In their third year when Sophia was three, their theme was colours and I decided to do the student competition and just to give it a try because she wanted to do costumes.”

“I made the costume and called it spectrum- It was an explosion of colours..very colourful, made of the colours of the rainbow and a gold backpack and glitters and pieces of coconut stem and sprayed it gold then put some sequence.

“At first attempt, she came third,” said Maria.

The proud mum was so chuffed, she felt this was definitely a validation of her skills as an artistic person whose work could be appreciated and suddenly, she could see herself doing this in the long run.

“At the time, I already realised that costume designing was not just a matter of  putting together pretty colours.”

Many festival goers appreciate the splash of colours and elaborate designs worn by the band members at Notting Hill carnival, but do we really see them as a work of art?

“There is quite a bit more involved in engineering the whole concept, part of which I very much specialise in now. Each carnival band has a different style, so as a designer designing for different bands, I have to take this into  consideration reflecting on the different style of each band while still putting my own stamp on it.”

Maria working on one of the costumes. Photo: Fadekemi Sulaiman

Maria working on one of the costumes. Photo: Fadekemi Sulaiman

Watching one of the volunteers working on a costume, it’s obvious there’s a lot of thought and consideration that goes into the making of every single bespoke costume, most of which are made just for that carnival, never to be seen or worn again at another.

“Its more than just colour,” says Maria.  “You have to think about comfort, how is the person wearing it going to be able to portray what you want it to portray? You can’t make it too heavy especially for a child and at the same time, you want it to be big enough to be elaborate.”

Notting Hill Carnival costumes

Costume Sketches for a Notting Hill Carnival band. Photo: Fadekemi Sulaiman

She explains further, “Each band has a concept, so you work within that theme of the band for each year.”

Maria got her big break into the world of costume mass production when a friend who makes the highly sought after pieces had more demand than she could handle that year, so in stepped Maria who took up the challenge to produce the shortfall even though she’d never done anything on that scale before.

Was she not scared of the challenge? I wondered.

“No,” she said. “I felt it was within my capability and it was only 2 sections to start. I started off with 60 people to design for and ended up with 90.”  The whole project took three months to complete and even though she eventually couldn’t finish the work before the deadline, she has no regrets and that didn’t stop her doing it again a year later.

“It was a learning curve,” she says.” I learnt you must have a team to take on a certain level of work, don’t take on more than you can realistically deliver. We started with that and with encouragement from the band member because I was new, I was really able to excel.” The band were so impressed with her work last year that Maria is now the main person producing for them during this year’s Notting Hill carnival.

Being an expert on carnival, I wondered what her thoughts were about our own Notting Hill carnival and if there were any similarities.

“Its important from a creative aspect. Notting hill carnival without the costumes doesn’t hold any interest for me, I can easily miss it,” says Maria. “Its the creating the costumes, everybody admiring the hard work that you put in,  it’s the creativity on display, being able to see the costumes on the day, people taking pictures, that’s what makes it fulfilling for me.”

For a family whose livelihood now depends on the carnival, the business woman says the money is not the main motivation for taking a job that requires her waking up at 6 am in the morning and ends at about 2 am when she’s dozing off with a glue in hand.

Maria insists “it’s definitely more than the money.” “You need to have passion for it, that’s why people volunteer their days off  and even sometimes, their holiday to help make the costumes in time for the carnival, so it’s definitely something that a lot of passion has gone into. It’s the pride when everybody gets their costume and being able to say, I helped make that.”

At this point, her daughter Sophia walks in with one of the many volunteers who help make the costumes and they’re working on sticking some sequins on to what looks like a cape.

Sophia’s got her own costumes to deliver and has her own company ‘Wassiville’  which was borne out of a similar passion for carnival just like her mum. Fresh out of University after studying costume design at the Royal College of Fashion, the 21-year-old spends most of her time building her business and making costumes while some of her peers are busy doing what they do best.

It’s a small sacrifice though to fulfil a dream she’s had since taking part in a children’s carnival at 10 left such an impression on her that she knew from then on she wanted to work in costume design.

I’m taken on a tour of the make shift workshop which is really an extension of the families main house, there are costumes in every possible corner of the room alongside bottles of glue and spray and colour and anything else you could possibly think of. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many feathers in one place.


Maria tells me it used to be much worse. Mum and daughter were always fighting for space in the dinning room and living room before taking their work to the local community centre and produce from there so the volunteers could work on the costumes, but it was very inconvenient, says Maria. “Once I decided to turn it into a business, I already started thinking of having a workshop behind my own home.”

The ‘production centre’ at the back of the family’s north London home took three years to complete because of time and money. Maria and her husband being the chief builders in order to save money. It was a communal effort in the end with friends all roped in to fit the roof and even Sophia’s boyfriend helped do the flooring, all in a bid to finish it this summer in time for the busy months preceding the carnival.

It might just be an extension, but it’s helped take the business to a new level.

“Just to have this space that I and Sophia could work in has made all the difference production wise, because we can easily have 6-7 people working on different levels of production and that has really helped.” says Maria.

It’s not all carnival for Maria though, who rightly sees herself as a fashion designer and regards her work as a work of art. The company has been commissioned to design costumes for a catwalk show during London Fashion Week in September and there have already talks of work for TV.

Being one of the pioneers in a new industry comes with its own challenges, but Maria seems to be taken it al in her stride. “Its something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.

“It’s the most exciting time of my life and I took the long way around, but I got there in the end.”


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