Dawn O’Porter is on a mission to revolutionize retro clothing. But, the presenter and author tells Jeananne Craig, don’t even think about wearing Spanx. Support knickers are apparently the work of Satan.
For some, a vintage dress represents an adventure into a different time, a one-off with history in every stitch. For others, it’s just moth-eaten tat someone else’s gran used to wear.
It’s the second hand sceptics in the latter camp who Dawn O’Porter wants to convert with her new Channel 4 TV series, This Old Thing.
Each week, the presenter and author, a retro clothes devotee, will take on a “vintage virgin” and show them how to make the most of hand-me-downs and bargain finds.
“My challenge is to just say to these people, look, you hate the idea of vintage because you think someone died in it, you think it all smells and it all looks disgusting,” O’Porter explains.
“However, if you get over that little phobia and come with me, I’ll show you that you’re going to sift through some rails, see something and go, ‘That is more me than anything I’ve ever seen before’.”
The 35-year-old, looking suitably retro in a paisley patterned shirt, brown knee-high boots and leather shorts, adds: “You are very restricted by what’s in fashion. With vintage, you’ve got hundreds of years of clothes to choose from, which all inspire everything that is on the high street anyway, so why don’t you just get an original?”
This interest in style started young. After her mother Carol died of breast cancer, Scottish-born O’Porter, then aged seven, and her older sister Jane were raised by an aunt and uncle in Guernsey, who worked as furriers.
“They had boutiques on Bond Street and they were part of that whole generation of clothes that were beautifully made. So all through my childhood, the conversations at the dinner table were all about how clothes should be. It was a real part of my life,” recalls O’Porter, who added the ‘O’ to her surname after marrying Irish actor Chris O’Dowd two years ago.
“That’s not to say I had any idea about it – it was just a subliminal thing. I knew what quality was, and I knew how clothes should make a woman feel.” During her student days, she confesses she was partial to some “slightly bonkers” trousers (“Thank God there wasn’t Facebook. Thank God, Thank God,” she says with a sigh).
There were some fashion mistakes when she began working on TV, too. Her big break came fronting a series of eyebrow-raising documentaries for BBC Three, including Dawn Gets Naked and Dawn Goes Lesbian.
“There are still some outfits in the early part of my career where I’m like, ‘Dawn, what?’ But I like the fact that I wore it and I wasn’t wearing something really obvious,” she confesses.
Vintage clothing helped her stand out from the presenter pack: “I wanted to have fun with what I was wearing, so I kind of got an obsession – but it was cheaper.”
These days, O’Porter spends much of her time across the pond in Los Angeles and New York, where O’Dowd is appearing in Of Mice And Men on Broadway.
She met the Bridesmaids star in LA at her 30th birthday party after a mutual friend, the actor Nick Frost, put them in touch with each other.
“[Chris] didn’t turn up until midnight, and I was dancing with my dad. He walked in – a tall, hairy Celt.
“I danced with Chris. I was really drunk; he threw me around the dance floor, then he left.
“And I remember waking up the next morning saying, ‘I think I’m going to marry that guy’.”
After tying the knot in August 2012 (the bride opted for a vintage, floaty number), she took the unusual step of merging her surname with her husband’s. “I wasn’t trying to be all feminist-y about it. I was just like, ‘It’s just my name’,” she says.
“My sister and I are last in the line of Porters and I thought it would have been a really weird thing to do – to change my name. And I had a book coming out, so I literally had to make a decision.”
She adds: “It’s funny, I keep getting electricity bills to our new house addressed to Chris O’Porter and it absolutely thrills me.”
The presenter has penned two novels, Paper Aeroplanes and Goose, and two more are in the pipeline.
And while This Old Thing is a “massive passion project”, O’Porter says she would pick writing “100%” over TV, if forced to choose.
“Writing is stressful, but it’s just the best. It’s so much more satisfying when someone says, ‘I’ve read your book’, rather than, ‘I’ve watched your show’.”
“Obviously, TV has not done my writing career any harm at all,” she adds. “I’m really lucky to have a profile, because I know it’s really hard to sell books. So I think I’ll always do bits of TV.”
One thing she won’t do is appear on shows where she has to critique other celebs.
“I actually got asked to go for a screen test in Los Angeles. E! [entertainment channel] had a new panel show which is about celebrity. I was on my way to the audition and I called my manager and said, ‘I’m not going, I don’t want to be on a show where I have to slag people off all day’.
“It’s grim, and I don’t want to be at parties and think, ‘Oh I said something really horrible about her that she probably saw and probably felt like s*** about’.”
With her experience of red carpets and A-list parties, what final fashion advice can O’Porter offer?
“If you don’t like wearing high heels, don’t wear high heels,” she says.
“And don’t buy anything that you’ll need support pants for. They’re evil.”
:: This Old Thing begins on Channel 4 on Wednesday, June 25