Reviews, News and Commentary

How fashionable women dressed in nineteenth century New Zealand

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910

By Claire Regnault

Te Papa Press


Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The Winner of this year’s  Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction was “Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910” by Claire Regnault. It’s a work of scholarship and research but also one which breathes life into the many illustrated dresses and examines the ways in which women conducted themselves in the nineteenth century.

As the title suggest this is not a history of clothing but of  fashionable dress. These are the clothes of the well to do made of quality material by both  amateur and expert dressmakers.

While it is a history of clothing the book also provides a generous overview of New Zealand’ s social history of the Victorian period, one dominated by the mindset of Victorian England along with colonial adaptations.

Through the numerous illustrations and descriptions, the reader can trace the changing designs and silhouettes of the prevailing fashion. the degree of exposed neck shoulders and arms and the degree of ornamentation and decoration.

The book is filled with interesting mini histories and anecdotes. We learn of the enterprising individuals who worked as dressmakers as well as those who opened stores, imported materials and were aware of international trends.

The major stores such as Kirkcaldie and Stains Milne and Choyce  were important as they imported the new dresses from the England as well as producing their own clothes. By the turn of the nineteenth century Milne and Choyce was employing more than one hundred people in its dressmaking, millinery and mantle workrooms.

Dress with fitted bustle pad manufactured by James Spence & Co of London (Te Papa)

Then there are those who created fashion out of New Zealand indigenous furs and feathers for local and international consumption.

Hector and Elizabeth Liardet not only made and sold a variety of items made from of local exotic skins and furs. They also exhibited their goods at international exhibitions in Australia, London and Paris.

This muff, which belonged to James and Georgiana Hector, is made from the skin of a little spotted kiwi. (Te Papa)

There is even small historical note which could let Walter Buller of the hook. While he has recently been presented as the man who single-handedly destroyed the native bird population in the late nineteenth century, the fault may lie elsewhere. Regnault notes that as a twelve-year-old boy his mother skinned and stuffed four kokako to make into cabinet specimens which he received as birthday present – a gift which may have had an adverse lifetime effect on the young man.

There is a revealing episode which occurred in 1863 when a group of Māori (ten men and four women were taken to London by an enterprising William Jenkins. They caused much news and sensation and were even presented to Queen Victoria. For much of the time when they were in public they dressed in a mixture of European and traditional clothes, indicating that they were civilized. The European  clothes were a symbol of that civilization, but some of the men in the party objected to having to wear their traditional mats as they no longer wore them in New Zealand and regarded them as “heathen.”

Many of the dresses and accessors are works of art showing not just the technical skills of the dressmaker but also a genuine creative flair  with works such as a magnificent white swan feather evening cape and a vibrant red “newspaper” costume made by Miss Munro for the  Strange and Co Department Store in Christchurch.

Miss Munro of Strange & Co made this prize-winning newspaper costume for the Canterbury Times in 1908. (Canterbury Museum)

The book is also peoples by the fashionable people who wore the dresses. So, there is a photograph of Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Burnell Beauchamp, Lady Ranfurly, Dick Seddon’s wife Louise and his daughter May in her militaristic uniform of the Lady Douglas  Contingent at the time of the Boer War. There are also fashionable Māori such as  Huria  Matenga, famous for saving many lives from the wreck of the  Delaware.

Huria Matenga – Nelson Provincial Museum

Also included is a section in full colour of example of fabrics from Te Papa’s collection showing the intricate nature, design and quality of some of the fabrics including damask, silk, cotton and velvet.

The book itself is a beautiful creation with a soft pink cover and a pink material bookmark. There are numerous full colour illustrations of dresses along with many historical photographs.

It is an important addition to books which show how New Zealand developed a local culture in art, architecture decoration and design in the nineteenth. It was a culture which was  heavily dependent on overseas models but with an increasing degree of local enterprise and creativity.

The bodice of the Tudor-themed costume worn by Lavinia Coates to Lord and Lady Ranfurly’s ball at Government House in 1898. (Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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