fabric

Hidden in the Seams

The Whanganui Regional Museum houses a textiles collection with about 3,600 items ranging from early pieces of clothing, including dresses, skirts and shirts, jackets, hats, gloves and lingerie, as well as samples of needlework, lacework and embroidery. There are also domestic items such as tablecloths, quilts, tea-cosies and household linens. Add tapa cloth and mats and rugs, and the range is significant. The items provide important information about their role in different eras, and in the skill required to create them.

1. Silk dress

 Silk taffeta dress from around 1860. Ref: 1968.13.1

The way a garment is constructed can tell a lot. The choice of fabric, the quality of materials used, style, silhouette and colour combinations can offer hints about the era when it was made and about the person who wore it. Even something as simple as the stitching can tell a story.

The craft of sewing by hand was a necessary skill for women settlers in colonial New Zealand. Sewing materials like thread, fabric and needles arrived in Church Missionary settlements as early as 1820, and the ability to create, mend and repair textiles was essential. Dressmakers and tailors started to arrive by around 1840 and offer their services, but many people were in isolated areas or simply could not afford to have clothing made by professionals; therefore, sewing from home remained an essential part of life for women and girls.

As a seamstress, a woman was required to know a myriad of stitches for different purposes: hem stitch, top stitch, straight stitch, blanket stitch, tack, chain stitch, darning stitch, slip stitch, pad stitch, buttonhole stitch, to name but a few.

For many years clothing was either prohibitively expensive or fabrics were hard to source. Sewing was important in making clothing last longer, let alone creating something from scratch. Mending was an art. When clothing was faded, it was taken apart and sewn back together wrong-side-out, or the fabric used as trim or lining for new clothes. When the fabric wore out it was reused to make quilts or other functional items. These settler people understood Reduce, Reuse, Recycle out of pure necessity.

2. Inner of silk dress

 Lining of the same dress showing its hand-sewn construction.

In time, the arrival of retailers who sold ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing made clothing the family easier. For many years, however, the intricate design, shape and fit of women’s clothing meant mass production was not viable. Even with the availability of more widely used domestic sewing machines in the mid-1880s, the skill and ability to sew by hand was still required. Many New Zealand women were involved in the handcrafted construction of clothing until well into the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter the practice of home sewing started to decline, due to the availability of factory-produced and relatively cheap clothing.

In comparison to today’s world, sewing an item of clothing was a hands-on, intimate, lengthy and skilled process. Today as a society we do not have much of a connection to what it takes to make a garment, because much of the manufacturing involved is offshore and very much an industrialised process. It might even be fair to say many people today would struggle to be able to thread a needle.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Fashion in the Sixties and Seventies

Fashion is influenced by many factors but often reflects what is happening in society at the time. The textile collection at the Museum includes garments that reflect these changes.  An exciting time of change was the 1960s and 1970s when the way people dressed was an obvious sign of shifting attitudes.

1. Merle Higgie dress

 Mrs Merle Higgie wore this evening dress of orange chiffon with stitched orange flowers on the sleeves in the 1970s. It was created by Camette, a New Zealand design company based in Auckland.
Ref: 1995.60.2

In the early 1960s, Western economies and populations were booming. Young peoples’ income was the highest it had been since the end of World War II. This increased economic independence for youth, fuelled a new sense of identity and the need to express it. The dramatic changes started largely in the USA and Europe with styles influenced by the youth sub-cultures of the Beatniks (who rejected the mainstream in favour of artistic self-expression) and the Mods (because they listened to modern jazz music). The Mods in particular helped focus the tastes of young people everywhere, and inspired the look of bands like The Who and The Beatles. The fashion industry quickly responded by replicating their styles, creating designs for the young fans to imitate their heroes. This decade was the first era when young peoples’ clothes were different from those worn by their parents.

New Zealand was usually several years behind the world in terms of fashion, but with the advent of television, young Kiwis were immediately able to copy what was happening overseas. In 1962 there were only 23,000 television licence holders nationwide, but this increased to more than half a million by 1968. Television shrank the world, and by the mid-1960s, New Zealand young folk were wearing the same styles as their contemporaries overseas.

This decade saw traditional dress codes broken with women wearing trousers and showing more and more leg. The mini-skirt, popularised by English designer, Mary Quant, quickly earned its place as the decade’s most iconic look. Others chose to bare very little by choosing the maxi skirt. By the 1970s skirt length had become the midi; mid length, around the knee.

It was not just the hem line that changed. Colour in clothing also went to extremes. What had been a muted or pastel colour pallet until the late 1950s became bright and bold, and many people were wearing combinations of colours and patterns that intensified their startling effects.

The late 1960s saw the beginnings of the hippie movement when bellbottom pants first came into fashion, becoming even more popular during the 1970s. The styles from the later 1960s tended to be more androgynous and quite free flowing. They mimicked the social mind-sets of the era and were inspired by eastern cultures and political activities, such as the Vietnam War.

The 1960s also saw a move to incorporate the new man-made materials developed during World War II and for the space programme. Perspex, PVC, polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, vinyl and others were fabrics of choice for new young designers wanting to create easy-care outfits that were eye-catching and fun.

Whanganui produced some of its own designers who became influential, on the world stage, as well as nationally. Whanganui-born Philip Shortt entered the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards, New Zealand’s major competitive fashion event that ran for 34 years between 1964-1998, three times, from 1969 to 1971, all with success; he received merit awards in 1969 and 1970 and won the Supreme Award in 1971. Shortt studied at the Fashion School, Royal College of Arts in London. As he established his career he went on to dress Margaret Thatcher and designed the women’s uniform for the British Constabulary.

Rosalie Gwilliam, also from Whanganui, entered the Benson and Hedges Award competitions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with considerable success. She is well represented, with 26 examples of her work, in the Eden Hoar collection of New Zealand fashion; this was developed by a farmer from Nasby and was the largest private collection of New Zealand fashion in existence.

2. Annette Main dress

 This black crepe and gold thread cocktail gown was created by Michael Mattar of Taumarunui, and was purchased and worn by former Mayor of Whanganui, Annette Main, in the 1960s.
Ref: 2013.9.2

The fashion industry of the 1960s not only changed what was worn, but how clothing was purchased. Old-style department stores were abandoned for boutique experiences. At the same time, there was more mass production, which made keeping fashionable more affordable. Whanganui businesses catered specifically for the new youth market with two new shops called Teen Scene and La Boutique, both in Victoria Avenue. Taumarunui could also boast a top-class fashion store, that of Michael Mattar’s Haut Couture boutique. At the height of his fame in the 1960s, women would travel from Auckland and Wellington to purchase his exquisite cocktail gowns.

 

By Trish Nugent-Lyne, Collection Manager at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Fashionable art

Fashionable art I

This week, museum Visitor Experience Creator, Mandy Brooke, talks about a garment made especially for the 2008 Wearable Art Awards.  But the garment, a gown, was not accepted as it did not stand out enough on stage.  Made by Daniella Sasvari Markovits, a Hungarian immigrant to New Zealand, it has since won the Taranaki Arts Award, the Wearable Advertising competition for the House of Art and Framing and was worn by the NZ contestant in the Miss Teen World Beauty Pageant.

It was gifted to the museum in 2010 and was on display on a mannequin in the green room during the museum’s Colours exhibition.  So why did Mandy choose this gown to show us? “It was made in 2008 but it’s the idea that we make history all the time,” she says.

Fashionable art IIThe gown is called New Zealand in My Eyes and represents the landscape around Wanganui. Using applique technique and layers of fabric, the front of the gown features earth colours with a jewelled tree on the bodice. There’s a transition to a more realistic landscape on the back where we see paddocks, fences and sheep, a predominance of green and, again, a jewelled tree on the upper back.  The beadwork is detailed and intricate, using reflected light to add dimension to the work. It is art, of that there is no doubt. It is also wearable and has been worn where the world could see it. What better gallery for such a work of art?

“I love the colours; I love the landscapes,” says Mandy, “I love that it’s fabric turned into art.”  Mandy makes things herself and at the moment is setting up programmes in the museum so children can also ‘make things’.

Even though the gown is relatively new, it has enough history to have earned itself a place in the museum.  Daniella is still creating for wearable art, and gifting this gem to the museum has ensured its preservation and occasional display. It’s the best place for such a fragile work of art. “Fabric clothing needs special care,” says Mandy, and the museum is equipped to provide it.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in June 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Mandy is no longer working at the Whanganui Regional Museum.