The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940
Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault
New Zealand Fashion Design
Te Papa Press, $120.00,
Fashion can signify everything from cutting-edge catwalk creations to what you’re wearing now; from battered track pants to Armani suits, tramping boots to Kathryn Wilson high-heels. But whatever fashion means or doesn’t mean to each of us, the facts remain: we are dressed from the day we’re born and will go to our graves attired; and between these two dates we will almost never be randomly clothed. Even if we claim dress is the last thing we care about, we do still care. As novelist Elizabeth Bowen put it, “On the subject of dress almost no one, for one or another reason, feels truly indifferent: if their own clothes do not concern them, somebody else’s do.”
Whether we like it or not, fashion implicates us all, although, paradoxically, its very quotidian nature can delude us into believing it is of no significance. Daily life slips by largely unexamined by most of the population. Wherever we live, whoever we are, we get up in the morning, pull something on and go out into the world looking more or less socially acceptable. Those who don’t – Wellington’s Blanket Man, for instance – are either punished or iconised, sometimes both, and named for their attire.
Perhaps this taken-for-grantedness partly accounts for fashion’s late arrival on the New Zealand publishing scene. That and our post-colonial heritage. Only a few generations back, the indigenous people were bullied and/or persuaded into “respectable” Victorian dress. The immigrants who did the bullying and persuading brought with them in their cabin trunks a bundle of sturdy attitudes about what was proper for men, women and children to wear and to be interested in, along with a determination to make their way that valued the useful and spurned the aesthetic.
Then there are those who dismiss fashion, as one US museum director has said, as “the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity”; as superficial, light-weight, exploitative (add your own adjectives to suit). The alliance between fashion and commerce is particularly often cited by anti-fashionistas, as though art, photography, music and, indeed, writing, were not similarly in bed with the devil.
Such disdain is by no means universal. Few nationals take their intellectual life more seriously than the French, but that doesn’t prevent them putting couture up there with cuisine and cinema. Not for a moment would a French citizen think he or she had to choose between reading Barthes on fashion or dressing in it.
The authors and publishers of the two books under review may have been galled to discover that they broke this new ground in the same year, but, given their differing takes on the subject, there is no contest. Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault take a social historical approach; former Te Papa history curator Angela Lassig comes at fashion as art, focusing on its current stars and selections from their work. Fashion scholars and enthusiasts will probably want both titles on their shelves, but, the general reader – especially the more fashion-averse – should undoubtedly go for The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940.
Jenkins et al give us a time tour of the last 70 years of New Zealand fashion, and how well they do it. The text, whose chapters are mainly written solo by one of the authors, is always lively and informative. The generous illustrations – of the clothes themselves, on (usually named) models or mannequins, and their designers; magazine covers and features; shop windows and designers’ workrooms – are various and intriguing. The book’s design is attractive without drawing attention to itself and thus distracting from the content.
In his introduction, Jenkins says the book originated in the 1999 explosion of interest in New Zealand fashion when four designers (Karen Walker, WORLD, Zambesi and NOM*d) were invited to show at London Fashion Week. As usual, home media coverage of these events both created and reflected this “sensation”. It hailed a unique New Zealand look, playing up its economic and national-identity potential.
But, says Jenkins, it was a response in which “all notions of the past were removed.” It ignored older generations of fashion designers, who, not unreasonably, felt they had had something to do with the success of the new. And it “severely limited the ability of contemporary New Zealand fashion design to explain the origins of its own uniqueness”. It also, it should be said, ignored generations of men and women who, in spite of this country’s isolation, and restricted production and choice, managed to avoid the default codes of respectable crimplene and walk-shorts, and dress stylishly.
The Dress Circle succeeds because it doesn’t restrict itself to fashion’s rarified heights. It tells the stories of what was designed and made for, bought and worn by those we lazily dub “ordinary people” as well as by the great and glamorous. It examines design but doesn’t turn up its nose at commerce. The text is studded with names and personalities, observations and insights. It had never occurred to me, for instance, that this country’s many highly skilled home-sewers were both an advantage and an impediment to a home-grown fashion industry. One evocative 1944 photograph shows a Naenae woman and her neighbour kneeling over fabric and paper pattern on the kitchen lino. Nor did I realise to what extent copying was once perfectly respectable, with new Paris designs being rapidly recreated here for the New Zealand market.
I fell on the nutshell biography of Flora MacKenzie, known to me only as a brothel keeper. First, though, she was a skilled designer and founder of Ninette Gowns, an exclusive Auckland salon with a rich and confidential clientele. They were fitted for beaded and appliquéd gowns that set them back £100 at a time when an off-the-rack dress cost seven.
The effects of WWII on fashion make fascinating reading. Clothing was rationed from 1942, with the government aiming to reduce the fabric and time going into individual pieces. So seams, pleats and buttonholes were restricted; lace, tucks and shirring banned. Men lost the right to double-breasted suits, an official sock length was decreed and turn-ups forbidden. The outcry against this last proved that, sometimes, those professing to care the least for personal style actually care deeply: New Zealand men and their tailors rose up to demand the return of their turn-ups. Show trials of Dunedin tailors ensued. Eventually the government capitulated and the right to turn-ups was reinstated.
Unlike many lavishly illustrated books, The Dress Circle is no mere coffee-table volume. It can, and should, be read end to end. In contrast, the portentously hefty New Zealand Fashion Design recalls Kramer’s invention in a Seinfeld episode: a coffee-table book with legs that transforms it into the coffee-table itself.
Its 500-plus glossy, large-format pages cover the work of 25 designers. These include the four whose collections appeared on the 1999 London Fashion Week runway, along with the well-established, such as Marilyn Sainty, Trelise Cooper and Doris de Pont, and a younger, lesser known contingent. Several-thousand-word profiles of each designer and their development are accompanied by photographs of them and their work.
Many of the latter images – showing both the whole garment and, pleasingly, on the facing page, a detail from it – are given the full-page, clean, white, context-free background treatment that signals “significant art object”. While the designs are arresting, even mouth-watering, the cumulative effect, particularly alongside Jenkins’s et al’s distinctly human story, is chilly and alienating. It raises the question not of whether contemporary fashion should be admitted into the hallowed halls of museums and galleries but whether it is enhanced by being so. The status of the industry and its creative forces might be, but perhaps not the individual garments, which are, or should be, designed for the dynamic human body. Whatever prevents clothing from becoming an acceptable, mainstream interest isn’t going to be remedied by a lurch to the other end of the pole that elevates outfits to artefacts.
Unfortunately these textual and illustrative treatments add up to a perfect illustration of the view Jenkins and his co-authors object to – that home-grown fashion sprang fully formed into the world in 1999. All notions of the past are absent. Peter Shand’s introduction attempts something of an historical overview, but is more concerned with cultural identity and the extent of home-grown fashion’s uniqueness. The profiles themselves amount to little more than rather pedestrian, if dressed up, magazine-style, narrative-plus-quote features, as in “The process of designing for de Pont is, in her words, ‘in the alignment of the stars’ ”; “The switch from Zambesi’s work practices and aesthetics to those of Street Life was not an easy one for Helen to negotiate”; and, “After almost two decades of designing high-end ready-to-wear, made-to-measure bridal and couture garments, Mitchell began a concerted expansion of her business in 2006.”
Readers might well have expected something altogether more scholarly and thoughtful, given that Te Papa has an extensive costume collection, and that Lassig specialised in fashion history. Some have hailed her book as “seminal”. Yet it seems to go little further than fashion journo Stacey Gregg’s Undressed: New Zealand Fashion Designers Tell Their Stories (Penguin, 2003). Perhaps what these enthusiasts mean is that they are delighted to at last see fashion elevated to art status. Whatever you make of it, though, this isn’t a volume many are likely to read cover to cover; at best, it’s a reference book, complete with designer facts, glossary and a listing of the last 20 years’ major design events, to return to as the need or mood takes us.
Fashion will never represent the pinnacle of human achievement. It can be venal and vacuous, its writers capable of producing some of the silliest prose you will ever read, and bequeathing us irritating singulars, like pant and legging. And it relies too heavily on foreign sweatshops, starving models and glamorised youth. Nonetheless, fashion is what you and I deal in every day, what others show us of themselves and what we show them of us. How can that not be significant and fascinating?
Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books. She blogs about personal style at