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.