the gentlewoman

The Reader

Having worked in professional kitchens since she was a teenager, Maxine Thompson, 32, is all too familiar with the pitfalls of wearing a “one-size-fits-all” uniform – particularly one that doesn’t fit. Uncomfortable and frustrated in 2012, the former fashion student found salvation in a high-waisted trouser of her own design. Now sold as “PolkaPants”, they are the go-to uniform for women chefs (and beyond). Maxine tells our fit-and-flare editor Lucy Milligan how mixing her talents for cooking and clothes was a recipe for success.

Maxine Thompson

Lucy: It seems like you’ve travelled full-circle, Maxine – which came first, fashion or food?

Maxine: It was fashion first. I was six years old when my mum started a company making skydiving suits for women and I would help her unpick fabric and screen-print patterns. I loved working with textiles and went on to study fashion design, but I’m sure working with my mum planted a seed in my head: women don’t have to make-do with uniforms designed for men.

L: Was fit the issue?

M: I always felt self-conscious wearing something that obviously didn’t fit properly and looked sloppy. I had to roll the waistband of men’s kitchen toursers down five times, then roll the legs up, which becomes a safety issue. They also didn’t last very long – I’d get them caught in an oven door and then they’d have a hole, which made them look even worse. Needless to say, they weren’t very comfortable, which is a priority when you’re on your feet in a hot kitchen all day.

L: Is that why the practicality of a 1940s silhouette appealed? That lovely pegged leg with a nipped in waist.

M: It’s a flattering shape on many different body types. The PolkaPants prototype was based upon trousers I’d made in university in a soft, polka-dot fabric – hence the name. The high waist is perfect for tucking in your shirt. And I added a belt loop on the side for your tea towel! I also added elastane to the blend, so there’s a little stretch, making it easy to move around and bend down in.

L: Was this based on market research?

M: I suspected other women chefs were experiencing the same problems, but I also did wonder if I was just being a diva. So when I moved to London in 2014, I started talking to women working in hospitality and I even made a questionnaire that I sent to everyone I could think of – kitchens, culinary schools and colleges. And I was proved right by the responses: trousers for women chefs was something worth addressing.

L: I gather you now have some high profile customers.

M: I know! Even Ruthie Rogers of The River Café is a fan. I met her in New York last year and she bought a pair for herself – now all the women in her kitchen wear them so I must be doing something right.

L: I’ve also been wearing them. A lot.

M: Oh, really? I know women from many industries, both creative and practical, have been wearing them as an alternative to wearing leggings or jeans. They’re ideal for going up and down ladders. And it’s nice to feel like you have a dedicated uniform; something just for work.

L: And when the work is over, how do you unwind? Are you a reader?

M: At the moment I’m reading It Chooses You by Miranda July. It’s about the people she met through responding to adverts in the Pennysaver. She would go to their house to interview them about the objects they were selling. Each chapter is like a short story, so it’s a nice thing to read before bed.

L: Do you have a go-to cook book?

M: It’s not well known, but there’s a book called Terrific Pacific that’s been in my family forever. There’s this one dish – chicken, cooked with lots of ginger and star anise – that I’m currently craving, so I texted my Mum for the recipe, and she just sent me photo of the page – it’s completely covered in soy sauce. Those recipes taste like home.

Interview by Lucy Milligan, May 2019. Portrait courtesy of Maxine Thompson. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!