Meanderings through the wardrobe

Meanderings through the wardrobe

In the tradition of Narnia, interim museum manager Debra Elgar takes us on a trip through the wardrobe. The room is called the textile store. Not a particularly glamorous name for a place where wearable history is racked, drawered and hung, silent witnesses to past lives and historic body odour.

“We get given hundreds of things, and textiles is one of them. Clothing, it’s amazing, from 18-something-or-other to T-shirts of the ’70s with ‘Make love not war’ in screenprint,” says Debra.  “So all of those have a home here. Anything from outerwear to some prehistoric underwear, which looks nothing like the sort of thing that you’d buy in Farmers today.” So we gazed at drawers, bloomers and vests that once adorned the well-to-do, underneath many layers of seemly other garments, of course. Debra says that most of the museum’s young visitors find the garments unrecognisable. The thong is not a patch on the bloomers … no, a patch would be much bigger.

There’s a christening gown on a rack, and it looks almost new.  Everything is cared for in a temperature controlled environment and delicate items are carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue and handled only with cotton gloves.

“My interest in the textile room,” says Debra, ”is, firstly, my mother-in-law is involved heavily in costuming. She is the wardrobe mistress for Amdram Theatre. They have an enormous textile room there. So there is a sort of a family connection. My mother was always a sewer but I have absolutely no sewing skills whatsoever, so for me, I’m in awe of these amazing creations.”

We moved to a rack of gowns, mostly, from where Debra extracted a thick, heavy, ancient, old gold bronze-coloured gown of the 19th century. Made of shot silk, the bodice and skirt are detachable. Debra pointed out the width of the waist and remarked how small the clothing of yesteryear was. She says corsetry made a difference, but in fact the people were a lot smaller (slimmer). She showed me the stitching, done by hand, of course, which allowed for unpicking to wash pieces separately before sewing it back together again. Mind you, it’s so hard to get good help these days.

“These are not just gowns,” says Debra, “These are creations. These were the outer garments that were worn by wealthy people. These were not the garments of the commoners. By and large, the garments of the common people haven’t survived; they’ve been used up. They became rags, they were cut down for children’s clothing, that sort of thing. So what we get is the very exquisite and rather expensive thing.  Of course, the textile room is an absolute gem for Wanganui because, aside from my personal interest, we have a fashion and design school here at UCOL.”

As we browsed through the gowns, marvelling at the workmanship and quality, it became more apparent that Debra’s observations about the size of our foremothers was correct. Even today’s modern teens would struggle to fit into these gowns, especially if the obligatory layers of engineering (corsetry and petticoats) were included underneath. The obvious cost of the garments meant they once belonged to people of wealth and importance, ladies who were seen at all the best places in Wanganui, wearing their finest apparel and accessories.

Debra showed me a very blue wedding gown. I’ve never seen so much blue in one garment, even though the wearer was evidently tiny. There would be an interesting story there, if only we knew it. Why blue? Why not white? Or cream? Who was she? Was it a second marriage? Was she colour blind?

Debra sees the textile room as part of the history of a lot of Wanganui women. There are dressing gowns, ‘tea’ gowns, evening gowns, wedding dresses, costume jackets.  There is men’s clothing too, naturally – trousers, jackets, hats, boots – everything suitable for an evening at the snooker tables in the Wanganui Club. We are lucky that families have thought to save these clothes and pass them on to the museum.

Debra’s parents were teachers. She has lived all over New Zealand. She was educated at Wairarapa College, an unusual beast in that it was a co-ed boarding school. She went nursing after school and “enjoyed the challenge and the excitement that went with it”, before moving into health management. Now she uses her considerable expertise to mind businesses and organisations that need looking after during times of change or transition. Hence her position as museum interim manager. So Debra Elgar, wife of Amdram president Geoff Campbell, daughter-in-law of Ray and Marion Campbell of Amdram’s wardrobe and costume department, we know your weakness – fine clothing. Thanks for sharing your passion and some finely wrought textile treasures from the past.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in January 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.


Images of a Museum Collection – Part I

In this first part of a two-part series, Collections Assistant Kathy Greensides talks about part of her role as Museum Photographer and the kinds of things she does on a daily basis.  Tune in next week for Part II…

As museum photographer I am often asked what kind of things do I photograph? As well as photographing exhibitions for security records, exhibition openings and staff members for our website, one of the things I love about my job is to photograph collection items, new acquisitions that have been accepted for the collection and also back cataloguing of items accepted in the past but not photographed. Every object we accept must be catalogued in detail and having a photograph to add to the collection record gives anyone looking for an object a detailed image.

I thought I would write about some of the things I get to work with on a day to day basis. I never know from one day to the next what I will be photographing, and what follows is a small selection of some of my favourite images.

We recently dismantled some large bird dioramas to make way for our up and coming moa exhibition opening this year. There were over 100 birds to photograph so this presented somewhat of a challenge, one of them being getting them to sit upright so I could get a good image!


Wilson's Bird of Paradise

Wilson’s Bird of Paradise

Southern royal albatross

Southern Royal Albatross

Eastern curlew

Eastern Curlew








Another large collection we have is our collection of numismatics (coins and paper money) some date back to Roman times and even earlier. We are lucky to have a volunteer who is a specialises in numismatics and  is currently cataloguing our collection. As we move towards being a cashless society these small treasures will become increasingly scarce. Below are images of three particularly beautiful and rare coins.

Henry IV groat – c.1412 – 1413

Henry IV groat – c.1412 – 1413

Byzantine gold coin – 9th century Turkey featuring the Emperor Basil and his son Constantine on the obverse.

Byzantine gold coin – 9th century Turkey, featuring the Emperor Basil and his son Constantine on the obverse.

Byzantine coin reverse features Christ, his right hand raised in benediction and his left hand holding a book of gospels.

Byzantine coin reverse features Christ, his right hand raised in benediction and his left hand holding a book of gospels.

Small silver Roman coin featuring Antonius Pius c.138 AD – 161AD

Small silver Roman coin featuring Antonius Pius c.138 AD – 161AD









The textiles department houses a vast range of objects including carpets, tapa cloths, dresses, uniforms, flags, shoes, samplers, hats, bags, quilts, the list is endless.

Hartnell dressBritish designer Sir Norman Hartnell clothed three generations of Britain’s royalty. He is best known for the intricate and lavishly decorated gowns he created for Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother and Queen Mary. This 1930’s dress is of light gold satin-backed crepe with narrow shoulder straps and a “V” neck at both front and back. There are four wide horizontal alternating crepe and satin bands from bust to knee. The left side has a placket opening. The centre back has a pleated satin insertion which drops down to become part of a full sunray panel from knee to ankle.

Rangitikei Rifles jacketRangitikei Mounted Rifles Bandsman’s jacket; red with navy blue stand-up collar and cuffs; fringed epaulettes with white braid decorated with red crowns; same braid on collar, cuffs, down sleeves and back seams.



German Samoa flagThe flag of German Samoa features three bands of black, white and red, from top to bottom. The German eagle surmounted by a crown is set at centre. This flag was taken by New Zealand Armed Forces in Samoa in August 1914.

Wedding dress

This full-length sapphire-blue silk wedding gown is lined in natural fine cotton. It has a piped stand-up collar of matching cotton sateen. The bodice has a centre-front opening with 26 metal hooks and thread loops. It also has dart shaping from hip to bust, with whalebone inserted between waist and bust line.


CorsetThe B.G. Celebrated Corset, worn in about 1895, has fourteen pairs of baleen or “whale bone” stays. This fully-boned corset is made from grey-banded  twill weave cotton with ecru Broderie Anglaise trim and finished with decorative  top stitching. Five metal  loops and studs at the centre front closure, called the busk  board,  fasten the corset around the wearer. Nineteen pairs of metal eyelets at the centre back are the anchors for lacing the corset tightly to create a fashionable hour-glass figure.This is the original meaning of “straight-laced’’. Each half is constructed of six shaped panels. The whale bone reinforcing is sewn on the outside.


We are also lucky to have a volunteer that is cataloguing our armaments collection which includes guns, knives and swords. He is also cataloguing medals and militaria.

Imperial Service OrderImperial Service Order – badge and case. The Imperial Service Order was instituted in 1902 to recognise long and meritorious service by senior civil servants. Gold centre piece with royal insignia, surrounded by 7-pointed star, topped with crown and suspended by red ribbon with blue centre running vertically down middle. Wood case with purple velvet lining.


Blunderbus, 11 bore, 0.700 caliber, single barrel, muzzle loading, flintock action. Brass barrel with folding bayonet. London and Birmingham proof marks, black powder G.M. inventor. Known as a “Coaching Blunderbus” and used to protect stagecoaches, no military significance.  The blunderbuss was a flintlock weapon used by travellers and farmers in defence of property. Its usual ammunition was lead balls, if the balls were in short supply, stones or nails could be used. The short, flared barrel made it very inaccurate and unwieldy, giving the weapon a shotgun-type effect which could hit many targets at once or none at all. They were used from the 17th to the 19th century. The name blunderbuss comes from the Dutch donder bus which can be translated as ‘thunder-pipe’.

Gun cleaning kitGun cleaning spare part kit for a Bren Mg MK1 303 machine gun.  Kit comprised a khaki canvas roll up kit, shoulder strap attached comprising 4 pouches, 3 with buckled flaps, one as pocket, with the centre third closing with 2 external buckles, and contained: 2m length twine with brass end for cleaning barrel, a metal canister containing brush attached to lid, a metal  spanner, a metal container containing wire mesh 6×3.5cm, alum keys on ring, and 1 large spring 8 x 1cm, 2 small springs, 3 unidentified metal objects.


Check back in next week for more Images of a Museum Collection, but if you can’t wait until then take a look at the collections uploaded to our website.