Looking Flash

Looking flash: clothing in Aotearoa New Zealand Edited by Bronwyn Labrum, Fiona McKergow & Stephanie Gibson Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2007. 288pp. RRP $49.99 ISBN: 978-1-86940-397-3
Reviewed by Graeme Were, University College London
This volume consists of fourteen chapters from different authors, all featuring many fascinating and compelling photographs. Given the richness of the material, it is difficult to summarise each paper in any depth. Readers will notice, however, a strong focus of the volume is the study of museum collections of clothing and their histories as well as the social context for key clothing styles that have helped shape settler society and Maori culture in New Zealand. The diverse content of the paper contributions weaves together a textured understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand as it is fabricated in narratives of Maori skills, marine history, Scottish settlement and military waistcoats and so forth.
This range of paper contributions will provide those interested in material culture, fashion and textiles with an important insight into the history of clothing styles in New Zealand. The authors are drawn from a range of backgrounds, and include museum curators, conservators, textiles historians and experts in museum studies and Pacific studies. Readers will be treated to outstanding photographic imagery: there are fifteen colour plates which complement some of the papers together with historical photographs that are rarely seen. These images – such as that of Mr and Mrs Imrie posing with their prized possessions, including a sewing machine (in Labrum’s chapter), evoke to the reader some sense of the spirit of settler society in the nineteenth century.
One quibble is that while the editors bring together a diverse range of innovative case studies, my feeling is that a better organisation of the chapters would have strengthened the key themes coming out of the volume. As a result, readers may find that they move erratically through a succession of chapters, jumping from one set of issues to another without any real reflection. Nevertheless, this volume is a welcome addition to the material culture of clothing and comes especially recommended for those with an interest in colonial clothing styles.
As way of a summary, the volume sets off with Labrum’s paper – an orientation, situating the overall study within the context of interdisciplinary studies of clothing, pointing out its transition away from dress or costume history towards material culture studies. Te Arapo Wallace examines a range of clothing worn by Maori, made from dog-skin and flax, demonstrating some of the technical skills of Maori weavers. This paper tries to unpick the western term ‘fashion’ and provides some concepts behind Maori clothing style through oral histories. Livingstone and Carson examine some eighteenth century dresses brought to New Zealand as heirlooms by families travelling from England. The paper explores the significance of these treasures – made from beautifully patterned silks – and the possible reasons why people packed them in their luggage.
The association between kilt wearing, authority and tradition is the subject of Pickles’s paper. She traces out how kilts first appeared in eighteenth century New Zealand worn by Anglo-Celtic New Zealanders from the time of colonisation, and worn for martial activities. This paper reveals some interesting historical points about the Scottish diaspora, the kilt industry, as well as the emergence of identities carried with the wearing of tartan especially amongst schoolchildren and the gay and lesbian communities. Butts’s paper takes us on a journey through the clothing collections of the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum in Napier. The author underlines the importance of clothing collections in provincial museums in New Zealand by picking off the rack some treasures in the collection including: an eighteenth century Royal Irish Regiment officer’s tunic; a christening gown made of Indian muslin; a Maori waistcoat woven from plain and purple dyed flax; and an embroidered waistcoat once worn by a Scottish civil servant,
One of the most novel contributions features an analysis of the clothing of castaways – marooned or shipwrecked mariners – who are often mistaken for ‘wild men’ because of their inadequate or improvised clothing. Quérée’s highly original contribution charts the stories of shipwreck survivors in the Auckland Islands and how, once being rescued, their lives are normalised through the act of dressing. The chapter includes some wonderful historical photographs of such survivors wearing sealskin jackets, skirts, hats, and moccasins as well as sewing needles made from the bones of birds.
Tamarapa tells the story of rare type of dog hair cloak held in the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. She uncovers the cloak’s history, documents its social significance and its technical construction, as well as its collection history using archival material and oral histories. Labrum’s contribution explores the culture of second-hand clothing, examining the nature of hand-me-downs and thrift beginning in the nineteenth century. She explains how newly arrived immigrants had trouble in obtaining clothing as they had to rely on imported goods and how the manual work many undertook led to novel ways of maintaining and repairing their own clothes. In a similar way to Quérée’s study of castaway clothing, this paper reveals innovative clothing practices amongst groups in society that are seldom represented. Indeed, Labrum’s paper ends with an examination of clothing in asylums, refuges and orphanages into the 1950s and 60s.
The next two chapters examine consumption and the retail clothing industry, integrating with good effect advertisements, photographs of shop fronts and cartoons. McKergow examines the experience of shopping in Palmerston North in the late nineteenth century by paying attention to shop window displays, sales techniques and promotional material. Daley is concerned with the beach and the story of shrinking swimwear. The advent of new fabrics allowed for lighter and tighter swimming outfits and this is traced alongside the changing moral economy of the twentieth century, which inevitably led to confrontations with New Zealand’s authorities.
Military uniforms weave together the theme of the following two papers. Montgomerie’s contribution explores the clothing fashions of women in the Second World War; and we learn how advertisements encouraged women to maintain interest in fashion and make-up despite shortages. Macdonald examines the clothing fashions of female marching teams and their connection to Scottish emblems – kilts, naming and accessories – as well as American service uniforms such as hats worn by marines.
Another contribution that stands out is the chapter on the social history of the black singlet. Gibson traces out its role in New Zealand rural identity, particularly its association to hard work and masculinity, and the transformations it has undertaken. She asserts that the singlet is iconic of twentieth century New Zealand culture and can be traced through a number of visual representations from stamps, cartoons, advertising and art. The final chapter explores the Eden Hore Collection of fashion. Malthus relates how Hore – a farmer and avid collector from Central Otago – allowed his housekeeper to wear items from his collection at local events. His collection is testament to some key fashion influences of the 1960s onwards with some extravagant items from famous designers.
Over the last decade or so, there has been a proliferation of studies from within the social sciences that explore the materiality of cloth and clothing. Clothing is now the leading concern of a host of interdisciplinary studies whose theoretical scope and justification was marked by the appearance of the work of Jane Schneider and Annette Weiner in 1989. The significance of their work lies in the fact that it drew attention to the seriousness of clothing as a material expression of genealogy, history and social memory, finally laying to rest the idea that clothing could be treated as some sort of trivial expression of social relations. This volume takes inspiration from this, and in so doing, presents a weighty contribution to the study of cloth and clothing in society from the regional perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand.