The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940, by Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault (Godwit/Random House, 2010), 422 pp., $75.
What is the purpose of clothes, beyond reflex notions of warmth and concealment? Does fashion have to be attractive? Or can you use it to express anxiety, even revulsion about body-image issues, about political issues? Fashion reveals hierarchies of class and taste; but fashion is also by definition subversive, a form of revolution overthrowing preceding fashions which have become stale. And fashion is cyclical: it recycles the past in ways that help define the present. Fashion, then, is a form of drama, a form of theatre, an expression of emotion crafted into art — or perhaps crafted into architecture, using the body as framework.
The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940, with each of its chapters written as single essays on a particular decade linked to create a chronological narrative covering seventy years, had its genesis, we are told, in 1999, when the so-called ‘New Zealand Four’ (Karen Walker, WORLD, Zambesi and NOM*d) featured at that year’s London Fashion Week and won critical plaudits, being compared by British media to the so-called ‘Antwerp Six’ — six innovative Belgian designers of the Eighties. For fifteen minutes or so New Zealand was ‘the new Belgium of international fashion’. Well, the euphoria has faded, but that moment did mark a business breakthrough of sorts. The Dress Circle has been put together, not so much to celebrate this, as to chronicle the fashion movements in New Zealand which preceded it. (And as such it complements Angela Lassig’s book New Zealand Fashion Design, published by Te Papa Press in 2010, and consisting of profusely illustrated profiles of twenty-five contemporary local fashion designers.)
The Dress Circle takes 1940 as its starting point by asserting, polemically, that this was when modernism ‘arrived’ in New Zealand. What exactly is meant by ‘modernism’ in this context is unclear, and in fact the book actually begins somewhat uncertainly in the 1930s, even harking back to the leisurewear styles and the beginnings of consumerism and industrial-scale commodification in the 1920s. This then is still the age of the British Empire, but the radical and subversive ideas in fashion are arriving via Hollywood and motion pictures, with Douglas Lloyd Jenkins citing one anecdote to exemplify this. In 1932 Julia Yates, wearing a woman’s trouser suit, the inspiration for which was film star Marlene Dietrich, went for a walk down Queen Street, as you do, and was spat on — an occurrence which she later described as one of the most frightening experiences of her life.
Sisters Julia and Trilby Yates were trendsetters who ran an Auckland fashion salon, Trilby Yates, which catered to high society and employed two of the most significant fashion designers of the era in Nancy Hudson and Hall Ludlow, both of whom were to move to develop their careers in Australia.
The influence of Hollywood and its vampy screen sirens can also be discerned in the fashion photography of Clifton Firth, who, along with photographing the artists and bohemians of mid-twentieth century New Zealand, also created some of its most powerful fashion images, with intense poses and on-location film noir lighting. However, in general the fashion industry was characterised not by progressive designers and avant-garde photographers but firstly by profit-minded professional garment manufacturers who produced imported designs under licence in factories to be sold in local department stores, and secondly by legions of skilled home sewers: every self-respecting New Zealand home at the time had a sewing room, and sewing was deemed — for women — an all but obligatory accomplishment. Amateur dressmakers copying designs from overseas fashion magazines, and perhaps making subtle idiosyncratic adjustments, were a prominent part of the New Zealand fashion scene into the 1960s and beyond.
In its praiseworthy attempt to inoculate us against cultural amnesia, The Dress Circle provides a roll call of the best mid-twentieth century fashion designers, including Bobby Angus, Emma Knuckey, Bruce Papas and Gus Fisher — the commercial success of these latter two indicating the emergence of professional male designers in the mid-1950s, and signalling the gradual demise of the female amateur dressmaker as a key component in local fashion design.
The 1940s were, of course, dominated by World War Two, which meant for local fashion: isolation, austerity, fabric shortages, drab utilitarian styles and mass uniformity. At the same time, this state of things stepped up the tempo of improvisation: necessity turned housewives into the mothers of invention. The homecraft of knitting accelerated as an approved public good; along with knitted tea cosies and knitted hot water bottle covers came buttoned cardigans, sleeveless pullovers, socks, and more. In some ways then the world of fashion in mid-twentieth century New Zealand was the world of the premium wool bale running joyfully rampant, with woollen mills in full swing, and thick wool double-breasted suits for men and smart woollen coats for women in seemingly never-ending demand.
By the Fifties, high-fashion knitwear was being supplied in vast quantities to the leading department stores such as Smith & Caughey, Kircaldie & Stains, Ballantynes, Milne & Choyce. The Wool Board Awards for outstanding garment designs, and wool wardrobes gifted to fledgling celebrities such as the young Kiri Te Kanawa and various Miss New Zealands, endorsed the fashionable triumph of wool. Yet wool fabrics were also being steadily undermined from the Sixties onwards by the arrival of cheap synthetic fabrics and clothing, which was also more convenient for the new automatic washing machines.
The Dress Circle establishes the context of the home-grown fashion industry: up until the late 1980s New Zealand garment manufacturing was protected by government tariffs and quotas; consequently local firms had the financial wherewithal and long-term confidence to ‘assemble a significant pool of industrial craft talent . . . most of whom were women . . . [and so sustain] a large professional garment manufacturing sector’. Today, by comparison, the reality of high production costs and skills shortages has led to a small niche-market garment industry and just a few quality sewers, who are highly sought-after. At the same time, thanks to the dominant ideology of ‘creative industries’, there is a plethora of young designers emerging from polytechnics with sketchbooks of ‘ideas’ but with limited skills as pattern-cutters or machinists to implement them.
Fashion, The Dress Circle confirms, is ever a colourful weave, made up of many clashing threads capable of snagging. This history also charts the rise and fall of skirt hems, along with the disappearance and re-emergence of the slimline silhouette. Immediately after World War Two, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ came down from the haute couture catwalks of Paris to stamp its wily authority on the yearning post-war zeitgeist of the next decade and a half, with long full skirts, nipped waists and an ultra-feminine elegance. In New Zealand the new look was interpreted for the discerning by new migrants from Europe, as well as, amongst others, Barbara Herrick’s Babs Radon label, and occasional blow-ins such as the Australian wunderkind Barry McDonnell, who specialised in clothes for bachelor girls. Barry McDonnell set up shop in Auckland’s Symonds Street in the mid-1950s, before abruptly departing to London where he worked for Mary Quant at the beginning of her meteoric rise.
For couture fashion, Hollywood film stars such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were the role models, as was the young Queen Elizabeth, particularly through her Norman Hartnell-designed wedding dress, and her various formal evening wear gowns.
Then the baby boomer youthquake of the 1960s and the Mod look, initiated by Mary Quant and by London’s Carnaby Street, changed everything as the modest opulence, nostalgic romanticism and slightly stuffy ‘elegance’ of the 1950s gave way to the emblematically loose-fitting chemise, or shift, which evolved into the mini-skirt; while male fashion took on a hectic pick’n’mix flavour deriving from pop-music-inspired playfully provisional clothing ensembles. Spectacular if short-lived his and hers boutiques sprang up in giddy delight, along with the emergence of more intuitive designers with street-cred, including Marilyn Sainty and Annie Bonza (formerly Annie Cole). The latter dressed the gogo dancers on the immensely influential tv pop show C’mon, as well as the pop singers Dinah Lee and Ray Columbus — who appeared on the tiny black and white screen resplendent in a satin suit with hand-painted psychedelic lapels and twinkle-toed black winklepicker boots, nodding his mop-top.
The dialectical march of fashion (reaction followed by counter-reaction) saw the plastic futurism of Sixties pop replaced by ethnic and rustic peasant clothes, and then, in shows such as the Benson and Hedges Fashion Awards at least, by exuberant carapaces of cloth: one-off couture garments voluminously crafted by designers such as Susan Holmes and Vinka Lucas, and collected, uniquely in the 1970s, by Eden Hore, a sheep and cattle farmer at Glenshee in Central Otago, where his extensive collection still remains on display in a former tractor shed.
The Dress Circle’s authors acknowledge that designers belong to specific communities of interest and operate within partnerships and support networks — for example, a number of publications have championed local fashion over the decades, ranging from the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly early on, to Vogue New Zealand, Playdate, Eve and Thursday in the Sixties and Seventies, to Cha-cha, NZ Fashion Quarterly, Planet, Pavement and Black in the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties.
And there are models who have served as inspirations: Judith Baragwanath is singled out, first as a teenage Sixties model, then as a Seventies fashion journalist, then as a fashion muse, appearing, as wrought-up as any opera diva, in the finale of designer Patrick Steele’s inaugural 1985 fashion show at Auckland’s War Wemorial Museum.
Masters of the photo-shoot — that is, those able to photograph settings and atmospheres which evoke a designer’s aspirations – include Max Thomson, Derek Henderson, Kerry Brown and Marissa Findlay, while the photographer Deborah Smith, known for her conceptual collaborations with Marilyn Sainty, here provides the cover-image, as well as the images which head each chapter.
Dedicated followers of fashion in the Seventies, photographs make clear, were caught up in a spirit of bravura experimentation, which the text sums up, primly, as a ‘non-structured bohemian aesthetic’, from which we might deduce they mean: a mess. Certainly the heavy necklace beads and tent-like kaftans are thought of as tacky fashion mistakes, best edited out of serious consideration unless classed as retrograde kitsch. So it seems the devolution of William Morris-style Arts and Crafts into let-it-all-hang-out indulgence led on ineluctably towards a new iconoclasm or fashion movement in the Eighties, as in the punk ethos of various collectives making anti-fashion statements — sending a message in a jacket — typified by Mike Brookfield and Rick Reed of Virus experimenting with hippie tie-dye techniques and the shock-value of enlargements of spermatozoa screenprinted onto shirts and dresses.
The excesses of the Eighties were also focused on by the TV soap opera Gloss, written by disillusioned fashionista Rosemary McLeod and featuring Ilona Rodgers as a fashion rag editor in Farrah Fawcett big hair and glitzy shoulderpads; but pompadours and power-dressing gave way to Pasifika, grunge and an identity crisis, as the 1987 stock market crash presaged the arrival of cheap mass-marketed, mass-produced clothing and globalisation.
Out of this uncertainty gradually emerged a new order of history-savvy and irony-attuned fashion designers, beginning with Liz Findlay’s Auckland-based Zambesi label, with its mantra that ‘the material is the muse’; and its devotion to sensual, vintage-inspired layered fabrics, put together with a quasi-couture flair that harked back to the Forties and Fifties. Meanwhile, Liz Findlay’s sister Margi Robertson, with her NOM*d label, arose somewhat like an ashen phoenix out of the Dunedin student-grunge scene, reinventing, for example, the great New Zealand uniform — school, army, brass band — unpicked, dyed and reconstructed, to resemble nothing so much as a collection of drainpipes at the back of an industrial building: patchwork textures with elongated thin arms and sleeves and narrow ragged torsos. Here, clothing was no longer just minimal, but elaborately minimal, layering different fibre types, weaves and weights of fabric.
At the same time, another well-informed fashion absurdist emerged from Auckland’s Eastern suburbs. Karen Walker’s skewed take on preppy suburbia, the calculated revelation of inner kookiness allied to strategic promotion and marketing, represented another way forward. Other emergent designers of the mid to late Nineties, such as Wellington’s Kate Sylvester and Auckland’s Trelise Cooper, also contributed to the new energy, the new vibe, the new buzz, the new self-belief.
The Dress Circle tells this multi-stranded story in a scholarly yet accessible way, bolstered by many classic photographs. The authors also manage to bring the Wool Board back into the narrative, boxing clever via their Wools of New Zealand arm together with the New Zealand Trade Development Board, to assist, for example, Zambesi to display at London Fashion Week 1999 five different wool treatments — from fine-spun yarn to felted, raw and undyed wool — and there is mention of the revival of well-made knitwear and of the wonder-wool merino. Thus an example is set for the New-Gen designers in the first and second decades of the twenty-first century.
Now New Zealand has its own Fashion Weeks — notably in Auckland and Dunedin — which attract genuine overseas interest and not merely amused curiosity. The once-improbable ideal of a nation with a distinct fashion identity is no longer culturally fringe or cringe worthy, as the ‘homely’ coexists with the ‘unhomely’ and the ‘canny’ with the ‘uncanny’, and all awaits recycling and reinvention.
DAVID EGGLETON is the Editor of Landfall and of Landfall Review Online.