At the Beach

100 years of summer fashion in New Zealand

Two women wearing vintage swimsuits. Two women wearing vintage swimsuits.

At the Beach: 100 years of summer fashion in New Zealand

At the Beach: 100 years of summer fashion in New Zealand

When Māori charted the coastline of New Zealand they were sketching an outline that would become the profile of our land, recording and fixing its identity.

The At the Beach exhibition presents a selection of garments that help to tell the story of the evolution of summer fashion in New Zealand. By looking at what we wore at the beach over the last 100 years, we can explore how our relationship to the coast not only encapsulates our identity, but how it has inadvertently influenced it and permeates our everyday existence.

This exhibition covers a number of themes that invite you to look at our past and also to reflect on how our unique beach culture can still be seen in our national fashion identity.

Camping and baching

Camping holiday at Waipu Cove, January 1976. Image by G Riethmaier.

Camping holiday at Waipu Cove, January 1976. Image by G Riethmaier.

Packing up the household and decamping to the coast for a summer under canvas has been a seasonal ritual since the first people settled here. Whether to make use of the food resources or for recreation, the beach is our sweet spot. Camping out evolved from a necessity for the early settlers, who had no other shelter, to an annual custom through which we re-enacted and celebrated the ideology of self-reliance and our pioneering spirit.

The 1950s to the 1970s were camping’s heydays and the square canvas tent with a green roof became ubiquitous. Government policy encouraged local councils to provide recreational facilities including municipal camping grounds and the Annual Holidays Act in 1944 guaranteed everyone two weeks’ paid annual leave. By convention this became the Christmas close down and witness to a mass exodus from the urban areas.

Increasing car ownership in the 1950s made the transport of a tent, camp beds, folding tables and chairs, Thermette, pots and plates, Tilley lamps, a portable radio and the whole family to a remote beach a possibility for many. When we got there our neighbours might be anyone from anywhere, Māori, Pakeha or a new immigrant; under canvas in our swimsuits and shorts there were few markers of social or economic status.

A simple home away from home and more weather tight than a tent, the bach, was the beach accommodation of choice for others. While the bach may appear carelessly thrown together it is not unconsidered. The choice to preserve simplicity is deliberate, freeing the residents from a need to pay it any attention. The egalitarianism that spawned the beach holiday and the bach meant a fair share for everyone but it also meant not drawing too much attention to yourself, a characteristic that remains at the core of Kiwi culture and fashion.

Even though this simple Kiwi bach of our imagination has been overtaken by a new reality, we cling tenaciously to the mythology. Even in luxury beach suburbs like Pauanui and Omaha where baches are bigger than your average suburban house, the aspiration is to keep it simple with open vistas, easy-care floors and carefully edited furniture and relaxed furnishings. The bach is a living expression of the culture of ease and functionality, which we so value as New Zealanders.

Decades of fashion

Otaki Beach, 1927. Otaki Beach, 1927.

Otaki Beach, 1927.

Otaki Beach, 1927.

Through history our relationship to bathing has ebbed and flowed sometimes in favour and sometimes frowned upon.

When we again recognised the benefits of bathing in the sea in the late 1800s it was modesty and the beauty ideal of pale skin that dictated the appropriate fashion and proposed a costume in dark coloured fabric thick enough not to become see-through when wet. Once in the water these became heavy and not at all conducive to swimming so when the liberal young ladies of the 1920s wanted to be more active, they chose to adapt the smaller more fitted knitted woollen swimming suits worn by men to their own fashionable purpose.

The swimsuit continued its shrinking trajectory exposing more and more skin and finally, in the mid 1930s, it became acceptable for men to fully expose their torsos, although not their navels.

World War II and material shortages brought challenges with wool and elastic no longer readily available. But it also brought new freedoms in fashion and lifestyle for women. Taking on men's work also meant wearing the pants and a more active wardrobe. This translated to beach wear, which became more casual with the introduction of separates; shorts and tops that could be mixed and matched. Swimsuits too separated - cutting the middle section out saved material and made movement easier.

In the 1950s the economy was booming and from Hollywood films we copied the look of their curvaceous women stars and suave leading men, hoping to channel their glamour as we went swimming, sunning or sailing.

By the 1960s, a youthful silhouette had replaced the well-rounded woman as the new fashion ideal. The modern bikini came to prominence in this decade inspired by wholesome California beach style as portrayed in films such as Gidget (1959). Ease, functionality, rich colours and textures are markers of this era.

In the 1970s swimwear got smaller still and what we wore became more individual. Holiday clothes infiltrated the urban wardrobe: singlets, t-shirts, trousers for women, bare legs, sandals and jandals appeared as daywear on city streets.

In the 1980s, thanks to Lycra, the leakage from the beach to the street continued. Bold, bright swimsuits with high-cut legs were also worn for aerobics or as bodysuits under flamboyant skirts accessorised with big hair and bigger earrings. High fashion and beauty pageants were briefly aligned.

The obsession with physical fitness and body-shaping meant that the body became the key player in the fashion stakes with clothes assuming the role of accessory. New Zealand showed that it could cut it on the world stage. Lorraine Downes was crowned Miss Mount Maunganui in 1983 and later that year became Miss Universe. Her win was New Zealand’s first in the pageant’s history.

Auckland teenage model Rachel Hunter achieved global prominence appearing on the cover of magazines as diverse as Italian Vogue and Sports Illustrated

In the 1990s, water-based activities such as triathlons and windsurfing saw the rise of practical one-piece suits designed for speed while the tankini and other separates allowed for personalised combinations and best fit, and rash shirts and other cover-ups offered protection from the sun.

Today swimwear is more a matter of personal choice than prescription with something for every taste and need.

Glamour

Publicity photograph for Jantzen Swimwear 1932 Publicity photograph for Jantzen Swimwear 1932

This publicity photograph for Jantzen Swimwear was taken by Wellington photographer Gordon Burt in 1932. Image courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, C.002282.

This publicity photograph for Jantzen Swimwear was taken by Wellington photographer Gordon Burt in 1932. Image courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, C.002282.

Glamour

Glamour is a word that conjures up images of beautiful bodies and seductive swimwear. Concepts of what constitutes glamour from a fashion perspective have changed over the years and although, to the modern eye, the idea of a wool bathing-suit is far from glamorous, adding a low-cut back, fine stripes and contrasting straps made it so.

There are many parallels between evening dresses and swimwear designs, with both existing outside the conventional rules of propriety expected of other clothing. Often more colourful, more shapely and more revealing than day clothes they are designed for showing off your physical assets to best effect.

In the 1950s, we sallied forth to the beach, strapless, uplifted and wasp-waisted, just as we did to the ball; and by the 1970s the crossover was working the other way, with bare-all bathing suits worn under a long skirt as evening attire.

Swimsuits became bodysuits worn under streetwear and luxe materials like velvet, once the prerogative for after-dark, were translated into show-stopping swimsuits.

The remarkable thing about the swimsuit is that for a garment so small, it has so many permutations, and although we don’t get many opportunities to dress up these days the desire to look glamorous remains. The beach is one place where almost anything goes and we can show off without censure.

Bathing and bronzing

Sunbathers on the beach, 1960s. Sunbathers on the beach, 1960s.

Their bodies glistening with oil, these char-grilled sun worshippers take tanning a step too far in the 1960s. Image from the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1055-178.

Their bodies glistening with oil, these char-grilled sun worshippers take tanning a step too far in the 1960s. Image from the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1055-178.

Bathing and bronzing

It seems we have come full circle in our relationship with the sun. As far back as Roman times, the colour of your complexion denoted social class and only those who toiled outdoors had tanned skin. Men and women covered up to protect their modesty but also the whiteness of their skins.

This started to change in the 1920s when new ideas about health, fresh air, sports and exercise emerged and leisure, once a luxury for the privileged few, became something more people could enjoy. The swimsuits of both sexes, primarily made of wool and covering the body from neck to knee, began to be designed with sunbathing in mind. They had deeper-cut necklines front and back, larger armholes, shorter legs and cutaway sections that exposed various parts of the midriff. Removable shoulder straps for women and removable tops for men were next and finally, in the mid 1930s, it became acceptable for men to fully expose their torsos.

Suntanning oils were initially designed to increase, not block, the effects of the sun with the inevitable need for sunburn treatments like Q-tol. The compulsion to get a tan continued with the swimsuit steadily shrinking into the 1980s, but as our awareness of the dangers of sun exposure increased, so too have our swimsuit options and we are now more sun savvy choosing materials with UV protection and covering up.

Sports togs

Four pair of men and women playing in the water. Four pair of men and women playing in the water.

In the interwar years modern young men and women were keen to be active at the beach as elsewhere. Photograph by Leslie Adkin at Otaki Beach, December 1926. Gift of G L Adkin family estate to Te Papa B.022122

In the interwar years modern young men and women were keen to be active at the beach as elsewhere. Photograph by Leslie Adkin at Otaki Beach, December 1926. Gift of G L Adkin family estate to Te Papa B.022122

"Sun-baked sands and the holiday mood call for gay and practical clothes, and it matters not a whiff if they appear unconventional and even startling this summer. Nowadays none of us would dream of going down to the sea without the correct attire, and this must be as à la mode as our latest dazzling evening gown," wrote Betty Kingscote in The Ladies’ Mirror: The Fashionable Ladies’ Journal of New Zealand.

For her this meant linen shorts and bolero combinations, culottes, wraparound skirts, bra sun-tops, wide-brimmed sombrero hats and 'playsuits', a name newly coined by the Paris-based Italian designer Schiaparelli.

Even though World War II impacted negatively on civilian lives restricting the availability of materials such as wool and requiring women to take on men’s work, it also brought new freedoms in fashion and lifestyle for women.

A need to reduce the size and number of clothing items one owned gave rise to the idea of separates, a more casual wardrobe that could be mixed, matched and layered. It was acceptable for women to wear trousers and shorts and to be strong and physically active.

Rayon and the newest synthetic fabric, nylon, began to take the place of wool and cotton. What we wore to the beach changed very rapidly after World War II as easy care new materials and labour-saving appliances gave us the luxury of leisure time, ensuring the continued presence of sportswear in our wardrobe.

Bright bri-nylon

Bright bri-nylon

A softer more natural fashion silhouette emerged in the 1960s to replace the shapely pin-up of the 1950s with the material of choice, easy-care nylon. Developed in 1938 it was used extensively during World War II and in the postwar period came to represent prosperity, hopefulness and fashionable modernity.

In 1958 the British Nylon Spinners trademarked their brand of nylon as Bri-Nylon and this became the default option for swimwear in New Zealand for the next two decades. With its quick-drying properties, its durability and colour fastness, and variety of textures, patterns and rich colours, Bri-Nylon surpassed anything that had come before.

Made in New Zealand

Models wearing Carpay Beachwear, 1965. Models wearing Carpay Beachwear, 1965.

Frank Carpay applied his skills ceramics and fabrics, such as the towelling used for these garments from 1965.

Frank Carpay applied his skills ceramics and fabrics, such as the towelling used for these garments from 1965.

Made in New Zealand

In the beginning

The story of swimwear manufacturing in New Zealand starts with wool. It’s not a fabric we associate with swimming now, but our early woollen knitting mills such as Lane Walker Rudkin, Roslyn and Manawatu Knitting Mills made swimsuits for men and women for the first half of the 20th century.

Recognising the limited seasonal demand for woollen clothing, these companies sought to diversify and respond to changing social trends. One of the new trends was swimming, which was heralded in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Lane Walker Rudkin, the company behind the Canterbury brand, was established in 1904 and by 1910 it had produced its first knitted woollen swimsuits.

The first exemplars for men looked like long john underwear and were produced in black to reveal as little as possible of what was underneath. For women, a knitted tunic and knee-length shorts known as the Canadian became popular. The technical and fashion demands of swimwear production ensured these companies kept up with the latest in materials and manufacturing technologies keeping up to the minute. Knitted wool was the material of choice until the 1940s when elastic fibres became more accessible.

Designs under licence

For swimwear, branding was one of its significant features with logos embroidered or stitched to the outside of the garment. The cache of the label was an important part of the swimwear story as early as 1920, for example, the Jantzen 'diving girl' and their slogan 'The Suit That Changed Bathing to Swimming', Speedo with 'Speed on in your Speedos', the green fern of the Pacific brand by Canterbury and the Roslyn label with the swimmer on the back of a seagull.

The demand for prestigious international brands was fulfilled by local companies making these swimsuits under licence. Garment manufacturers A J Coleman in Tawa acquired the license for Jantzen. Cole of California, worn by Esther Williams in her films, was made in Auckland by California Fashions Ltd. Holeproof Industries, which opened in Auckland in 1938, produced the sophisticated Rose Marie Reid label.

Lane Walker Rudkin bought the licence for glamour label Mabs of Hollywood in 1947. It also acquired Catalina, the label associated with the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, and Speedo.

When swimwear fashion moved from 1950s Hollywood glamour to a youthful 1960s Californian surfer look, brands such as Jantzen and Catalina also included more activewear that was also made here.

Exporting success

In the 1970s and 1980s, local swimwear labels Expozay and Moontide successfully took New Zealand style to the world.

Expozay was started in Tauranga by Judy and Tony Alvos in 1976. The brand’s focus was on subtly sexy suits in vibrant colours and original prints. By 1978 they were selling into Australia, and a decade later the company had some 900 accounts throughout UK, Japan and North America including the major department stores.

Established in 1980 by Tony Hart, Moontide championed the beach-loving New Zealand lifestyle using stylised Māori motifs and South Pacific colours and imagery in their original textile prints.

Moontide crossed the ditch in 1984, and by 1990 it was one of the top five swimwear labels in Australia; Expozay was another. In the UK Moontide was sold in Harvey Nichols and Harrods, which opened up the European market. British Underlines magazine named Moontide the best swimwear range in 1989 and 1990 and it won a Best Sportswear Award in the United Kingdom in 1998. The brand continues today, produced in China and sold in 50 countries.

Local players making a splash

In 1961 Dutch immigrant designer  Frank Carpay, his wife Carla, and patternmaker  Robert Leek developed a range of beachwear for men and women. Frank created his own Pacific-inspired designs which were printed on to towelling.

Boutique designers have also found loyal markets for their unique styles of swimwear. Jennifer Godward established her label  Jennifer Dean in 1960. She sold her fashionable and funky bikinis in Vulcan Lane, Auckland, and wholesaled around the country. In 1990 the brand was sold and with manufacturing off shore it continues to be a success today.

Lonely began as clothing label Lonely Hearts in 2003. It launched Lonely Lingerie in 2009 and it was a natural progression to add swimwear in 2014, following the signature long lines, straps and cut-outs seen in the lingerie.

Designer Helene Morris produces two swimwear collections a year which are manufactured in China. Her partner Steve Ferguson manages Lonely’s hugely successful social media strategy, which has given @Lonelylingerie an Instagram following of over 300,000.

A different niche is catered for by Covertogs, the brainchild of Karen Newton who saw a gap in the market for swimwear for women who don't feel comfortable in a regular bathing suit but still want to be active at the beach and in the water. With almost all swimwear manufacturing now having moved off shore, they consider themselves lucky to have located an ex-Moontide machinist with the skills and specialist knowledge to make their suits in New Zealand.

The culture of ease and functionality evident in our beach attire, is also apparent in the fashion that defines New Zealand style. The modesty and decorum so required at the beginning of the 1900s still chimes in contemporary New Zealand fashion with our penchant for layering, preferring to cover up rather than to strip away and expose the body.

We are not generally flamboyant or overly formal, we are sensible rather that frilly, feminine and embellished, we choose clothes that are pared back, understated and often black. Leisure, pleasure, activity and practicality are positive values associated with our beach culture and it is these qualities that are elevated to fashionable features by our contemporary designers.