Jo Poole has been on our radar for a little while now. Impressing both of us independently - Kirstie used her alteration services as The Dress Doctor for her vintage wedding dress last year, while I recently went crazy for the Life Skills section of her website - this lady really knows her stuff. Needless to say we’re thrilled to introduce her as the latest expert collaborator with whom we’ll be running a very exciting workshop this May - more on that coming soon. In the meantime if you haven’t already, do sign up to the mailing list to hear first about all we have planned! ;)
Let’s start with The Dress Doctor. What caused you to set it up?
I set up the Dress Doctor because I had several issues with working within the theatrical industry, where I’d been for about eight or nine years, mostly to do with waste and how everything I was making was very temporary … I was looking to see how I could transfer my skills to working with people.
I realised … what I did not want to do was produce more garments because everyone has enough in their wardrobe and clothes are fairly cheap, in fact cheaper right now than they have ever been. What I wanted to do was to use those skills to bring back all those possessions and garments that people have but aren’t currently wearing.
[We have] all these theatrical techniques that transform all sorts of nonsense; badly-made, ill-fitting clothes, handbags that are eighty years old and have cracked … to make things look good and lovely on stage. [I wanted] actually just to do that for real people at home, and to bring their wardrobes back to life and into circulation, but also, bearing in mind what their work’s like, how they live, so that their wardrobes become fit for purpose, not an abstract entity.
What are the top things that people ask you to do to their wardrobes?
Well, there are various categories.
There are people for whom standard sizing doesn’t work; so maybe they’re 4 foot 10 or maybe they’re asymmetrical because they have had some surgery. That’s quite a straightforward alteration where you match the clothes to their figures. So maybe I’ll take 4 inches off every pair of trousers they own, or whatever it is.
Sometimes I’ll go along and it’s a question of design. They’ll think everything they have is dated, but actually it’s all clothes they like and they have a lot of emotional investment in, so that’s a question of bringing things up-to-date and modernising things and maybe working out how they can be worn in different way and assembled in outfits.
And it can be about people’s work lives, especially. It may be that someone has had a long career where they have had to look very smart in the office and now that they are retired, they have very good clothes that they’ve got a lot of financial investment in which are not being worn. So it’s a question of making those clothes more casual so they can be worn on holiday or for lunch with friends – to knock the “business” look out of them!
That can go the other way, where people can have a job and then move up and become consultants. The modern reality of being a consultant may actually be “jeans and t-shirt in front of the computer in the spare room” for 2 or 3 days a week, but when you go to that meeting you have to be the sharpest person in that room. So it’s taking those clothes with wear left in them and really sharpening them up so they make that good first impression.
You probably have a lot to do with tailoring then?
Yes. I mean it’s a lot to do with alterations. I’m not a tailor. I would never make a tailored anything from scratch ever because that is such a skill – I mean it’s a seven-year apprenticeship! But in terms of altering and making things work for people’s bodies, yes, I do quite a lot. Especially with jackets because jackets last. Any garment that lasts I see more often, because it’s worth investing the money and the time in.
Do you have more male clients than female, or the other way round?
Um, it’s probably more equal at the moment. They all start off with the women! So the women get me in and any men – husbands, older sons, whatever – they realise that actually having me coming to the kitchen table is a fast track to not having to buy new clothes, and not having to go shopping. So they see that as a really good thing.
That’s great, you’re like the anti shopping…
[Laughs] Yes exactly! Because many men, once they know what they are comfortable wearing, they stick with that throughout their whole lives. So this is a way to perpetuate it.
How did you learn your skills?
I was very lucky to have two grandmothers when I was very small, and one decided I was going to knit and the other decided I was going to sew! [laughs] The knitting, I don’t knit and probably won’t ever…
And at what age was this?
… this was at age 4.
So yeah, I mean this was all big canvases with big holes and big plastic needles and big running stitches, this is not Couture work! [Laughs] But yeah, I started quite young. And then again, because of the school I happened to be at, we started making garments at about nine. I made a skirt at nine and shorts at ten and just kept it up really.
I’ve never really been one to take the world as it’s handed to me so I decided I could make do with bits of old things and make them good again, or make what I wanted. There have been a lot of disasters and a lot of experimentation but there have also been some triumphs.
When I did A levels I did A level Art, but all my work was using textiles and a lot of stitching as my medium so that brought in a more creative aspect. Then I went to study theatrical costume at university in Bournemouth and did a period at the French National Theatre School where we did more advanced tailoring.
Did you have to speak French over there?
Yes and the biggest disappointment of all of it, was… I used to do Youth Orchestra in France and then I’d studied 17th Century French Literature at A Level and I went to France feeling quite well prepared, and we did “Shakespeare in Translation” and I’ve never been so disappointed. [Laughs] It was awful, absolutely awful. It does not translate well.
You mentioned you do some teaching yourself now.
Yes I have done. I’ve taught costume supervision and that’s what I ended up doing a lot of the work in. So as Costume Supervisor you work between a theatre and a designer – the theatre employ you and give you a budget and your job is to realise the designer’s vision by the deadline (which is usually the dress rehearsal or the technical rehearsal). The designer says what they want, and you can say “we can’t afford that” or “if you have this, you can’t have those shoes” or whatever it is. Again, you’re working very closely with making things work. Every theatre has a store – it sounds great, a theatrical costume store – but the reality is it’s a load of stuff that was put away that wasn’t washed fifty years ago, covered in make up and missing half it’s sequins. You have that as your resource and [you have to] make that work and look good for opening night of the next show. So there’s an awful lot of specialist techniques and bits and pieces and manual labour basically that goes into turning those clothes into something wearable. Because actors can say, “that’s a health hazard, I’m not touching that!”
How does all that differ from doing real people’s wardrobes?
[With] real people’s clothes, one of the parallels is that there’s a very clear purpose. You are dealing with them as they are and their lives, which is very straightforward. They know who they are, and you can see by going into their house. I can see their sense of taste from their décor, whether they are naturally quite minimal and pared down in their approach or whether they are slightly more chaotic and creative, and it’s a straight transaction. Whereas with the theatres you are dealing with the theatre, its designer’s and the director’s vision and what the actor wants. It’s actually quite complicated in terms of personalities, and there are some big personalities that may clash. So dealing with individuals I find to be much more realistic about doing something that is going to do the distance and be a success, really.
What about your radio spots on BBC Cambridge?
There are a couple of ones.
There’s something I do every 6 weeks which is a panel thing in the afternoon where a couple of local experts or personalities - myself included - comment on the day’s news from our point of view. So you always hope it’s going to be either clothing or fashion related or at least style related so you’ve got a bit of an angle on it!
And then on a Sunday there’s a slot with Mark Rumble. He does… it’s like an audio Sunday supplement – so it’s all sorts of fun things where people come in and talk about something interesting and topical that listeners would be interested in while they are doing their Sunday morning chores. My last one was about dress sizes, because at the beginning of the year it’s topical – so many people are conscious of weight and maybe are trying to diet and turn over a new leaf and be more healthy for the new year. [I was] looking at dress sizes and how they don’t actually work and how they actually make quite a lot of people feel bad about themselves.
Actually tomorrow I’m going off to do a feature at a local charity called Emmaus, which is a homeless shelter that takes in all sorts of broken and unwanted goods and fixes them. It serves as a massive charity shop and they’ve started doing clothes. The companions in the community, they fix the electrics, the furniture and they learn those skills. So I’ll go along with Sue Dougan (radio presenter for Radio Cambridge for the afternoon) and we are going to look at the clothes and figure out how we can upcycle and make some outfits out of the clothes. I’ll take the sewing machine to the cafe and have a little session and hopefully we’ll be able to leave the outfit on display there when we are finished.
Since you started the Dress Doctor - what 6 years ago? - what changes have you noticed in terms of the work that you do, the people you come across … and the world around you?
In terms of the work, every job is different, in terms of the world it’s massive!
I started when it was still officially boom time and the first financial crash in 2008 with Lehman Brothers and all that stuff, that seemed to have quite a big impact on a lot of the city community but actually not so much outside of it by and large.
I suddenly saw a lot of bankers’ wives and people involved with hedge funds and venture capital who were using my services because they were starting to think about living in a slightly more sustainable way and how they actually had a lot of very good garments and how it was worth looking after them and making them work better.
Since then the rest of us have been plunged into different thought processes and there is a general aura of austerity and people are very much considering about what they have and what they want and how they want to live.
And valuing skills, which is why I want to do more workshops. I mean it’s really like outreach, sort of showing people what’s possible and what can be done and help them help themselves because there is that appetite for that kind of home living. It started with food. That’s been going on for a while now, people have taken charge of their own kitchens and what they eat and now they are beginning to with clothes and commodities so it would be really great if I could hand on whatever I can to help people help themselves, even if I do the work it helps them realise what’s possible.
That’s great! We’re really looking forward to working on that too with you.
I think the basic thing is that the world is still changing. We’ve seen this shift where people are starting to think about what they own but they are still thinking about finished products. The way things are manufactured now is so complicated and not that sustainable on the scale we’re currently doing it. And what’s happening now is that the raw materials – the wool, the cotton, the oil that makes the polyester – it’s all shooting up in value.
We have had this amazing era for very cheap clothes that are made just about well enough to continue. But we are entering a completely different era, where those building blocks are becoming more expensive and, as we know, we are currently lacking water in this country – we are officially in drought because we’ve had low rainfall for a couple of years – and that’s really going to affect what’s available and how it’s produced. We need to start adapting accordingly, but we can’t adapt effectively unless you know what’s going on. There is a great book, Lucy Siegle’s ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?’, that explains what the fibres are, where they come from, where they are made, which tend to be worst in terms of intensive labour. It’s pretty horrific out there. I’m not saying don’t go buying anything or consume, but maybe buy as much as you need.
And buy quality which you can repair and will wear well.
Well you can repair most things, it’s good fabric that gives longevity to clothes. You can always repair stitching more easily than you can repair fabric. And you learn to feel fabric, learn to know what you like to wear – if you look at the label and get to know what feels nice and see what its components are and then do the same when you are out shopping. That way it’s quite simple, if you know linen works for you, buy linen!
Cotton is an ethical minefield – I mean I’ve basically stopped buying cotton myself -whereas polyester which is touted as being bad, isn’t so bad. The polyester in your drinking water bottle is actually higher quality that the polyester in your clothes is, and you throw that away. So it’s amazing.
When you say quality…
It’s using a more refined, better grade of polyester so they last longer. I just think people need to become better educated. We can’t afford either financially or environmentally to stick our heads in the sand on any of this anymore.