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The ‘Duct Tape Dummy’ woman takes about ‘Mary Queen of Frocks’ and clothes for curvy women

Interview by Fabafterfifty

Penelope Else is finding fame as the ‘Duct Tape Dummy Woman’ on Mary Queen of Frocks. We caught up with Penny for her thoughts and insights on issues raised by Mary Portas’ latest TV series

What prompted you to get involved in Mary Portas’ programme?

A friend sent me the link, and I was excited that someone with some fashion retail clout was inviting me to get involved in what I interpreted as being a fashion revolution. I’m trained in pattern-cutting and draping on the stand (amateur, not professional!), and was getting more and more into designing my own clothes. I’d had visions of debating with professional designers, poring over fashion sketches, analyzing fit & fabric – really getting into the nub.

What do you feel about the choice of clothes for women in our age group generally?

Laughable! We are concerned with issues of fit, skin-exposure and gravitas (status, as well as gravity…). Designers, in response, have churned out dull, shapeless, energy-sapping clothes in cheap tumble-dry fabrics, as though the creative stretch was just too much for them. Gok Wan (even though I cringe at his outfits) has proved that older women are still excited about fashion – yet fashion retail is still failing to understand or nurture this. This is criminally stupid in a recession. Women haven’t shouted loudly about this before now because they didn’t realise it was a women-wide issue. They do now!

How easy do you find shopping for clothes?

I don’t even try any more: the chances of success are too small to be worth my while…. Or so I’ve come to believe. The moment I walk into a clothes shop I can feel the frustration build, particularly in department stores, who just create vast rooms of cluttered rails. I do see many clothes there that I like if I look – but the cut is for young, thin women and all wrong for me; even if it’s large enough. I’ve bought from catalogues – or tried – but the quality of cut and fabric is so poor I always send them back.

How did you come up with the idea of the ‘duct tape dummy’?

People have been making these for years, for various purposes. Mine was to help me with my designing and with fitting, which is a major part of the sewing process. I can’t express how much it has helped me! Everyone should have one. Even if you just want to cannibalise old clothes and make them into new ones for fun, it’s worth having. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper and more accurate than a shop-bought dummy!

What went through your mind when you stood back and admired your handiwork?

Do you mean the one I did on film of Jane, the other woman on the show? Oh, that one was terrible! You have to tape very carefully around the bust, and because I was being filmed I think I just splatted tape on there, to get it over with… But the one my friend did of me is excellent! A bit battered now from being lent to the show (I suspect Mary used it as a punch-bag…), but still helping me every week.

How have people reacted to a dummy based on the body shape of real women? What do you feel about Mary Portas’ reaction to your dummy?

Varied! Some people think it’s fabulous, but Portas clearly disliked it – whether because she just doesn’t like plumper women or because it highlighted her inability to design for it, I don’t know. I was very disappointed with her reaction, because it told me that she was every bit as thin-obsessed as the industry she was criticising. I find it bizarre, frankly: their job is to provide me with clothes for which I’m willing to exchange cash. Why do I have to be interested in their thoughts about my figure, too? Just get on and design clothes like you were trained to do!

Curvy women are curvy in a dozen different ways

What would you like designers to take into account when designing for curvy women ‘of a certain age’

They need, first and foremost, to be designing straight onto a realistically shaped and sized dummy. Ideas on paper are great, but they often don’t translate well into reality. Using a size 10 dummy is quite useless. The fabric behaves differently, collars, buttons, pockets, patterns will probably need to be on a different scale, seamlines and colour blocks will need to be placed differently. I used to use sewing patterns, but invariably by the time I’d altered the pattern to work for me, it was a different design altogether… Secondly, GET CREATIVE with sleeves! I’m stunned at the lack of imagination here. They just add a tube of the same fabric onto the armhole and say ‘Job Done’. It’s not done. I’m becoming a connoisseur of sleeves now, clocking every one I see on tv and in magazines and analyzing it for plumper/older arms. There’s so much choice, so many options. There is one thing I will say in support of designers: it isn’t easy! Skinny women are just tubes, making design simple; while curvy women are curvy in a dozen different ways. If I design a range for my shape (boob-heavy hourglass), all the apple-shaped or skinny women will probably look terrible in it. I don’t know what the answer is, except for retailers to find designers who specialise in a particular shape and ensure all shapes are catered for.

Has Mary Portas got her collection right?

Well, it has missed me by miles, obviously! Given what I’ve said above, though, perhaps I should simply say that she has focused on a particular body type – hers – and was never going to appreciate mine, Jane’s or Simone’s. But that was half her focus group… It’s a shame she was so blinkered, because I think she missed a fantastic opportunity to explore 3-D design. Give me a curvy woman any time! So much more shape to play with. That’s my strapline, I think!

To find out more about Penelope and her views on clothes, curves and life , visit her website www.penelopeelse.com


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  1. Marie Fraser

    November 22, 2011

    Really enjoyed this great piece – well done

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