The conventional chef pant more or less mirrors the shape of a pyjama pant – elastic waist, drawstring cord and baggy legs. Chef and part-time designer Maxine Thompson has a big problem with the “unisex” design. For her, one size does not fit all.
“One day, I bent over to put something in the Cryovac machine and my head chef put a spoon down my bum crack,” says Thompson. “I was like, OK, you can definitely not wear low-waisted trousers in the kitchen.”
Thompson found typical chef’s whites terribly ill-fitting on the female body, from both a functional and aesthetic perspective. A host of women responded to her idea for a fun, feminine version, sharing similar experiences.
“One girl said she’d caught the corner of her trousers inside the oven door because there’s so much extra fabric on the legs,” says Thompson. “Girls were saying they just didn’t fit. If you were any less than five foot ten, you’d have to roll the pants up at the waist and so there’s a huge spare tyre of fabric around your waist.”
Thompson, who studied fashion design at Queensland University of Technology in her early twenties, launched her label PolkaPants last year. High-waisted, slim-fitting and made in an array of classic colours and fun prints, these trousers are both functional and flattering. Styles come in full or cropped lengths and custom orders have also been made possible.
Now a private chef in London, Thompson originally grew up on Sunshine Coast’s Woombye, right next to the Big Pineapple. She ran her first kitchen in a beachside cafe at the age of 17. After that it was a degree in fashion design before she headed off to New York, doing a stint in business strategy at Chanel. “I wasn’t doing anything creative, just looking after sales targets, hanging out and drinking champagne with Missy Elliott and Lindsay Lohan,” she says, laughing.
Thompson’s next phase marked a return to food. She quit Chanel, enrolled in a French culinary institute in New York, then eventually found her way to a now-shuttered restaurant in Tasmania, Ethos Eat Drink. It was on her days off here that she began making PolkaPants prototypes.
“[At Ethos] it was a beautiful open-plan kitchen and more of an interactive experience with diners, so as chefs we’d have to run food out to tables,” says Thompson. “I was like ‘why?!’ I was wearing horrible, generic chefs trousers or cooking in ASOS trousers that would bleed over my chef whites when I scrubbed down the stove.”
Since relocating to London, Thompson uses local British manufacturers to produce PolkaPants.
In October, Thompson launched a PolkaPants collaboration with British chef Gizzi Erskine (a TV cook with a trademark beehive). It’s the first in a yearly series with various female chefs. Erskine’s version is inspired by her own rockabilly style with a high-waist and leopard print design.
So far, orders have been mostly for female chefs, but Thompson says food stylists, photographers and ceramic artists are also purchasing. “It’s kind of the same thing for a lot of girls who work in practical jobs. You find yourself having to find alternate clothes to wear to work, not the jeans you want to wear out.”
Flattering, female-specific pants for hospitality staff – it seems a perfectly logical idea, yet why has it taken this long? “Because [the industry] was generally all male, I think a lot of company groups were buying the one-size-fits-all from an economical perspective,” she says. “Qantas only just redesigned their female pilot uniforms. It’s not just a trend in the kitchen, but all industries where women are coming into traditionally male-dominated occupations. Everything has to shift a little bit.”
PolkaPants are available online only.
This article was updated on March 8 2018.