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Dyslexic schoolgirl rose to become dressmaker to Royalty
Buy this photo » Wendy Rich. Picture: OX55412 Damian Halliwell
AFTER years of struggling to keep up at school, ‘sewing mad’ teenager Wendy Rich dreamed of creating beautiful clothes fit for a princess. And that is exactly what she did.
Mrs Rich, now 79 and a great-grandmother, was just 14 when she left Oxford’s Holy Trinity Convent School, then in Woodstock Road.
She recalled: “I struggled terribly at school and couldn’t wait to leave.
“I believe I was dyslexic, and of course that wasn’t even known about in those days, so when I left it was a huge relief.”
What the young Wendy lacked in academic skills, she more than made up for in creativity.
She added: “I remember my first day at nursery school we were all given a little square of material and were told to fray its edges to make a mat. I remember loving the feel of that material and I just couldn’t leave it alone – I guess that was when I was ‘hooked’.
After leaving school at 14, Wendy was given an apprenticeship with the high society dressmaker Elspeth Fox-Pitt.
A famous lady who made costumes for films and the theatre, as well as the young ladies who were presented at the Royal court each year, Mrs Fox-Pitt had set up workrooms on the corner of Pembroke Street and St Aldate’s in Oxford, after her London shop was bombed out.
Mrs Rich said: “It was quite a privilege to get an apprenticeship there and my father had to pay for it, but I was extremely lucky in that I also got paid a wage – two shillings and thruppence a week (about 11 pence in today’s money).”
Better than the money, though, was the chance to see and even make some of the most exquisite gowns being produced in the country at that time.
She said: “It was a wonderful place – with lovely showrooms where ladies would come to be fitted. There were mirrors all around and chandeliers and carpets. It was just like a scene from the television series The House of Elliot.
“Of course we dressmakers were out the back in the workrooms, and it was very strict; you daren’t talk to the person next to you, unless it was about something you were working on.
Mrs Rich said: “A that time young ladies of good families were presented at Court each year and so we made dresses for balls and parties.
“When there were royal occasions we even had to sew ermine back on to robes. It really was top class work.”
While the dresses she made were way out of her own price range, it didn’t stop young Wendy making her own versions, including her own wedding dress.
After her four-year apprenticeship with Mrs Fox-Pitt, Wendy moved on to the Singer shop in Queen Street, Oxford, where she would teach sewing classes in the rooms above.
And after having her two children, Louise and Robert, she got a job as a part time ‘cutter’ at G Bloch Gowns, which still operates from Cowley Road.
She said: “Bloch made up clothes for some of the country’s top fashion houses, designers like Jasper Conran and Frank Usher. And one day I was asked to make a one-off order – a cream wool suit, for the Princess of Wales.
“It was an outfit by Jasper Conran. They sent her measurements – she was a small size 10. I later saw her wear it in a magazine and cut it out. I felt very honoured.”
At 53, Mrs Rich set up on her own business, making wedding dresses.
Her favourite was the one she made for her daughter Louise’s wedding in 1986, on which she sewed 80,000 pearls.
She said: “I shed a few tears when I saw her walk down the aisle in it. But it was well worth the late nights.
“My granddaughter Sammy-Jo is getting married next May and I would have loved to have made her dress too – but sadly I now have arthritis and failing eyesight and knitting is all I can manage.”
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