Dawn O’Porter: My memories of my mum are in 80s dresses

Dawn O’Porter lost her mum when she was just six – but her death inspired a passion for vintage glamour

Nobody could accuse Dawn O’Porter of not practising what she preaches. She sweeps into the restaurant of a Soho Hotel with her distinctive 60s bob in a bright pink distressed T-shirt, emblazoned with “I Beverly Hills”, tied chicly at the waist and a circle skirt studded with the stars, moon and planets of the solar system.


In the crook of her arm are two large carrier bags from Beyond Retro, Soho’s vintage treasure trove. She’s barely sat down before she enthusiastically starts pulling out the contents; holding each item up, stroking it, admiring it from every angle, carefully folding it back up, before pulling out another fabulous find.

“I bought this little yellow T-shirt, which was £12. Look at the shape of it! It’s really cute. It’s just a yellow T-shirt, but it’s not a shape that you could get on the high street,” she enthuses. “This sun dress – awesome, great colour, really, really cute – was £24. This gorgeous maxi dress with all these beautiful colours in it – look at the shape of the neck!

“But then I also bought… this was expensive. This dress was £150, but it’s a Courrèges. I’ve never seen one of these for less than £400 and it’s in great condition, it’s fully lined… I don’t want to be throwaway, like £150 is nothing, but for a piece of iconic designer clothing, that’s quite amazing. Courrèges basically invented the mini-skirt in the 60s.”

Dawn O’Porter loves clothes. More specifically, she loves vintage clothes. So it is apt that her new series for Channel 4 is all about the art of finding, restoring, altering and wearing items others have discarded. And she is good at it – one of those girls who looks like she’s effortlessly thrown on two mismatching items from her wardrobe that happen to complement each other perfectly. She is quirky but stylish. Her look is fiercely unique but extremely covetable.

Reassuringly, it wasn’t always so. The 35-year- old, who rose to prominence presenting documentaries on nudity, weight loss and lesbianism, and has since married Chris O’Dowd (of Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd fame), with whom she divides her time between London and LA, grew up in Guernsey during the 80s.

“Guernsey wasn’t exactly the epicentre of the British fashion industry,” she recalls. “I had a store card for New Look throughout my teenage years. I hadn’t quite figured out my own style but at the same time didn’t want to look like everyone else. I remember this pair of wide-leg metallic trousers that I wore almost every day that just didn’t suit me – they were hideous. I really should have known better.”

“I was brought up by my aunt and uncle and they used to be quite pivotal in the fashion industry in 1960s London. My family are farriers by trade and my auntie used to dress the windows in Oxford Street. Her wardrobe was full of amazing dresses, but I was quite a big teenager, so I just used to look at it longingly.

“About four years ago, I thought, ‘I’ve fallen into my body a bit now, shed the puppy fat, let’s go and have a look…’ There was this Ossie Clark maxi-dress and it fitted me perfectly – and now it’s mine. People think I’m crazy for being so emotional about clothes but every time I wear that dress I think of my auntie and uncle back in the 70s.”

While most of us will find a waft of perfume, a certain song or a special place might bring back an evocative memory, it soon becomes evident that for O’Porter, her love of vintage is borne out of her emotional association.

“The thing I love about the 80s is the power dressing. It was so structured, so kind of pow-wow and cool. I love the 80s, because I lost my mum when I was young and my memories of her are in 80s dresses.” O’Porter’s mother died from breast cancer aged 34, two days before Dawn’s seventh birthday.

“All I’ve got left of my mum now are pictures, and I love the fact that she’s wearing these really fun dresses. They remind me of who she was as a person. And I always think that after you’re gone, all that anyone’s left with is the photos of you. So think about what you’re wearing because, don’t you want them to look at that picture and be reminded of who you were and the fun you had? I think about that when I get dressed in the morning. And every now and then I wear a kick-arse 80s dress with shoulder pads and everyone says it’s hideous, but I don’t care.”

Are there any photographs of her, she wishes weren’t in the public domain?

With a genuine sigh of relief, she starts by saying, “Luckily I didn’t really start to have my photograph taken or do red carpets until I got together with Chris a couple of years ago. And by that time I had worked it all out…” 

And then she grimaces, as the memory of a certain outfit comes back to haunt her. “I did wear this great Ossie Clark plunge neck dress to the Bridesmaids premiere, with these Louboutin shoes that a friend lent me that were too big. My hair was overgrown and I made the fatal mistake of wearing red lipstick, which I never do, so I felt like I wasn’t myself all night. I looked ridiculous.

“In my defence, it was the first red carpet I’d ever been on and it was still better than putting on a random dress a designer sent me, like most. I think so much red carpet fashion is boring. Everyone just looks nice, and great, and cool… I always try to wear something a bit different, whether people like it or not.

“Chris also hates conforming – if we go to a black tie event, he’s the one in the velvet suit. I’m sure we turn up to these things and people stare at us and think we look crazy – but who cares?

“The first night that I felt like I had nailed my red carpet was at the Glamour Awards two years ago. I wore a Courrèges dress that was a couple of grand – that’s the most I’ve ever spent on anything ever, apart from a car maybe… and even that was hire purchase.”

Considering how expensive the dress was and how old and special it must be, was she not worried about wearing it to a party where it might be trodden on or spilt on?

“These dresses were created to be worn by somebody who loves them. The depressing thing is when they are stored in a wardrobe, eaten by moths, and die a dismal death. I thought that with my wedding dress, which was vintage. It was so special, I spent the beginning of the day wanting nobody to even touch it. By the end of the night I realised that, ‘If this goes home tonight covered in red wine, with tears in it because I was being spun around by my new husband, having the time of my life, then that’s the end of the line for this dress – and that’s OK.’”


This Old Thing: the Vintage Clothes Show starts tonight at 8:00pm on Channel 4