"When the Moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars"
James Rado and Gerome Ragni, ’Age of Aquarius’, from the musical Hair
Flares, platforms, hand-painted muslin tunics, crushed velvet, embroidered jeans and shirts, long hair, op-shop frocks, Liberty prints, empire line dresses, skinny rib tank tops, aviator sunglasses, peasant skirts, unisex t-shirts: this is what the 1970s looked like in New Zealand. Whether this summation causes cringe or happy nostalgia will depend upon your age and where you were in the 1970s. If you were young, optimistic and embraced the era as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius you will remember the decade as a dynamic time, a time when the social status quo was being challenged. The 1970s brought social upheaval, with many questioning the validity of the prevailing post-war culture: comfortable, suburban, consumerist.
Young women were asking why their lives should be limited to child rearing and homemaking and why when they did participate in the work force they were being paid less than their male counterparts. Young men were asking why we were fighting an American led war in Vietnam, and why they should be conscripted for military training in the first place. Everyone questioned how “safe” the testing of French nuclear weapons was if they were doing it our Pacific neighbourhood rather than their own backyard. And closer to home we had decided that we were not prepared to sacrifice our natural environmental assets, the pristine shores of Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau, in order to provide cheap electricity that would generate profits for a foreign owned aluminium company.
We were coming to the realisation that we needed to formulate our own views and to look our own capabilities and resources for our future well-being both at home and in the world. The social climate was ripe for creative local solutions and that was reflected in the fashion of the day, both in what we wore and in the way our clothes were being made and sold.
The Age of Aquarius exhibition provides a platform to see and experience New Zealand in the 1970s through the wardrobes and stories of six individuals, and through examples of six different modes of fashion making. They represent the diversity that existed and the trends that were prevalent. The consciousness-raising espoused by the women's liberation movement had clearly found purchase with our group, where regardless of marital status all were working. The experience of the one man profiled in this exhibition shows that there were also benefits for men that arose from social equity for women, because it removed some of the pressure on them to be the sole providers for a household, and allowed them to indulge their own interests.
Geoffrey Bailey was 36 at the beginning of the decade and worked for the civil service, but outside of work he expressed his passion for clothes.
Eloise Watts was 54 in 1970 and together with her husband Vic was the proprietor of the London Bar on Wellesley St, a working life that required a glamorous, yet practical, wardrobe.
Kathie Figgins was 25 and working as medical laboratory technician in 1970. Although she had married in 1968 she continued to work and earn her own income, which she put partly towards clothes.
Rachel Stace was 20 when she left home and moved to Auckland. Parties, weddings, music gigs and the like were motivation and inspiration for purchasing something new and for dressing up. Rachel (1973) is our cover girl.
Anita Arlov was a 13 year old student in 1970 in Christchurch and shares her wardrobe over a decade of growing up.
Also living in that city, Zora Price was a 39 year old and spent the 1970s working as a teacher, a dressmaker, a housewife and a mother of three girls.
While each expression of identity is different and personal, each of these people shared a time and place, and illuminate the sociological influences that impacted the entire culture at the time. These signs of the times reached into all forms of cultural expression including what we wear, and also, importantly, how our clothes were being made and sold.
Established manufacturers like El Jay, Society, Southwell and House of Raymonde, which had developed a loyal client base, continued to flourish by following the fashion of the day and delivering it to their customers. There also emerged a new breed of manufacturers, keen to take a different approach and to cater to an increasingly educated, informed, well-travelled and youthful clientele. Labels like Peppertree, Miss Deb, Attic 80, Fotheringay and Hullabaloo targeted this younger set, while labels like Bendon were agile enough to change their product to suit the changing market.
High-end couturiers like Colin Cole continued to successfully occupy the glamorous end of the spectrum while responding to changing demand by adding ready to wear. But the avant garde of couture was led by a new generation epitomised by Annie Bonza who combined the skills of couture cutting and making with the application of contemporary artistic embellishments using colour blocking, appliqué and cornelli techniques.
Customisation was a strategy that many of the aspiring designers of the day followed, bypassing the limitations of available fabrics to create their own original garments using materials that were hand-woven, appliquéd, printed, painted or embroidered. These designers made and sold their work through various models such as textile dyer and printer Susan Holmes who sold through artisan market Brown's Mill. Others like Linda Evans and Mary Jane and Phil O'Reilly sold through emporia, either small local shops or larger venues like Cook St Market. Still others chose the model of independent boutiques. Wendy Ganley of Elle boutique is a notable example, as is Laraine Flowers of Petrouska. There were others who joined forces such as the group who sold through Tigermoth or Virginia King who was sold her designs through Nova.
By the end of the era it was widely accepted that different styles of clothing and of making and retailing could co-exist and that it was possible for everyone to choose clothes that expressed your individuality.
The Age of Aquarius was on at the Geyser building, 100 Parnell Rd, Auckland from 14 September to 13 October. It will show at the Rotorua Museum from 15 February to 11 May 2014.
The Age of Aquarius reader is available to purchase in our shop.
For most New Zealand designers their passion for fabric and fashion started at home. It was a mother or grandmother who taught them to sew clothes for their dolls or a dress for themselves and it was at home that they learnt the skills necessary to create a unique and individual wardrobe. Home sewing has always been a way to achieve what you could not buy, whether you were constrained by cost or availability the solution was the same – DIY, and in New Zealand we did in huge numbers. Home Sewn looks at the evolution of home sewing in New Zealand, bringing together examples of the garments that were produced and worn here and includes examples of the fashion illustrations, articles and patterns that inspired the makers.
The pioneer women of New Zealand made everyday clothing for the family themselves; the underwear, shirts and day dresses, only the “best clothes”, the formal dresses and the men's suits, were made by professional tailors and seamstresses. Fashion information arrived via illustrations in the women's pages of the daily newspapers and through regular correspondence with friends and family who lived nearer the fashion capitals of London and Paris. While the well-to-do could keep abreast of fashion and had more occasion for “best” their cast-offs trickled down to the less well off and were remodelled and repurposed by the skilled sewer who then gave these cast off garments an extension to their useful life.
Even when dresses started to be readily available “off the peg” in department stores and in urban dress shops such as The Elite owned by Josephine McGuire in Nelson in the 1920s, home sewing remained the primary source of a woman's wardrobe. The fabric, and notions section of Smith and Caughey's occupied prime daylit space on the ground floor while you had to go to the first floor to get to the women's ready to wear section. While sewing skills were primarily passed on at home with mother's teaching daughter's, there were also training schools where you could refine your techniques and also learn pattern making to become a qualified dressmaker. Druleigh College was one of these and trained many of the young women who went on to work for fashion manufacturers like El Jay and later, as married women with families, could supplemented their incomes through dressmaking. According to Douglas Lloyd Jenkins in The Dress Circle, “It is a defining characteristic of mid century New Zealand that most women could sew and large numbers did so very skilfully”.
The range of sources for the latest fashion information became more diverse. Newspapers had their own “fashion correspondents” in London and Paris who wrote columns for the women's pages, Hollywood fashion style arrived via the movies and “star” gossip magazines like Movie Mirror and True Story and in 1948 the real thing was seen in New Zealand when 50 garments from Christian Dior's summer couture collections was shown at a fashion parade at Milne and Choyce and described in the Women's Weekly with detailed descriptions of the construction details for the home dressmaker.
Most sewers however were not skilled enough to replicate a garment simply from a pictures and the most powerful fashion tool available to them was the commercial dress pattern. In the 1930s the Women's Weekly started a free pattern service for it readers so that they could keep up with the latest trends. While Druleigh, Academy and McCalls were among the names on the patterns at this time the one that has stood the test of time and survived into the contemporary era is Butterick.
Fashion in the first half of the century was largely described in terms of elegance and sophistication, an aesthetic attune to the mature woman but in the 1960s the “youthquake” changed all that. Fashion and music were taken over by the young and chic was replaced by cool. Mary Quant and Betsey Johnson defined the look which was simple, short and fun. Home sewing engaged a whole new following with teenagers who were keen to have the newest fashions and able to make them because the shapes were so simple. For the cost of a two yards of fabric and a few hours to “run up” a frock on a Saturday morning, a young woman could hit the clubs in the evening looking every inch the groovy miss, the equal of her London or New York counterpart.
Home sewing made fashion fast and affordable and brought on an new generation with the skills to turn ideas into wearable reality. The 1970s hippy era with its op shop aesthetic and its ethos of self sufficiency served to further embed and expand these skills.
This exhibition was inspired by the Rugby World Cup tournament in 2011. The title, Black in Fashion references our national rugby team, the All Blacks, and in so doing seeks to identify links between sport, heritage and culture. It seeks to provide a framework to look at the wearing of all black by our sports teams and the place of black more generally in the New Zealand fashion context both historical and in the present day where it could be considered ubiquitous. By bringing together a historical array of over 70 fashionable and other significant black garments and objects this exhibition provides a platform to canvas ideas, to propose connections and to see and experience relationships in a visual and concrete way.
Curated by Doris de Pont, the diverse content was organised and grouped across a number of themes including: black in early New Zealand, black in sport, in music, black in authority, black from a Maori perspective, black in kiwiana, black fashion icons and the history of wearing black as a fashionable colour.
This is the first time the relationship between wearing black and the representation of our New Zealand identity has been explored in a museum exhibition. Spanning a 120 year period the exhibition highlighted not just how fashion has changed, but also how immigration and our changing relationship with the rest of the world has impacted on our sense of self and how that manifests itself in a developing New Zealand identity. It asks us to consider the question of whether there is something essential about what it means to be a New Zealander encapsulated in the colour black. When Julia Torrens chose to have her silk and lace dress made in black in 1892 she was showing that she had achieved financial success in this new land. On the other hand, the black jersey worn by the musicians who created the Dunedin Sound nearly a century later was chosen because it was cheap and practical. When Yvette Williams won New Zealand’s first women’s Olympic gold medal in 1952, black was not a fashion choice but symbolic of a nation’s pride. In contrast, black was chosen deliberately by Shona Tawhiao for her Mauao dress to make a visual statement about her ideas on family and modern tribal relationships.
The exhibition display allowed visitors the opportunity for up close scrutiny, as no areas were roped off and the majority of garments were positioned on low plinths enabling eye level viewing. All were accompanied by a narrative label that provided information and context. A TV set from the 1970s, was positioned next to the sports garments and played a continuous loop of historic rugby footage including film of the Invincibles Tour of 1924-25 compiled by the New Zealand Film Archive for the exhibition. A compilation of black themed New Zealand music played from speakers positioned next to the garments which represented Black in music.
In Auckland the exhibition was housed in a new retail space in the Britomart precinct, designed by Cheshire Architects and shaped like a black box. At night a video of the exhibition was projected onto the outside windows of the venue, giving those in the street an opportunity for an after-hours viewing of the exhibition. In Wellington the Black in Fashion exhibition was part of the International Arts Festival and was hosted by the Museum of Wellington City and Sea and was housed in a “pop up” venue over the road in the newly refurbished heritage Tower building in Brandon St.
Everything in this exhibition is connected through colour but if you look closely you may see other common threads and surprising differences that offer an insight into the wearing of black in New Zealand.
Two New Zealand Fashion Museum publications on the subject, the exhibition reader Black in Fashion and Black: the history of black in fashion, society and culture in New Zealand available through our shop.
Gus Fisher, 1961
Gus Fisher and his El Jay label made high quality, elegant and up-to-the-minute clothes for all occasions, from day dresses to party dresses, and from stylish suits to essential coats. Looking Terrific is a high-end fashion business story that spans 50 years from 1938 to 1988. It is about much more than a collection of dresses. While the young Queen Elizabeth was the fashion role model for most New Zealand women of the 1950s, Gus Fisher looked to the couture of Paris instead. He travelled every year to see first-hand the new designs, and to purchase the latest fabrics for El Jay. The contacts he established and his growing reputation for quality led, in 1953, to an invitation to become the licensee for Christian Dior, giving him the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell Christian Dior originals and Christian Dior prêt-à-porter in the New Zealand market.
The Dior connection is one part of the El Jay story and there are many more stories about ideas, ideals and New Zealand's cultural development, which the wonderful garments included in this exhibition symbolise. Looking Terrific: The Story of El Jay was the first ‘pop-up’ exhibition of the New Zealand Fashion Museum. Curated by Doris de Pont, it showcased 67 vintage garments produced by fashion industry leader Gus Fisher from the 1940s through to the 1980s. The choice of the Gus Fisher Gallery as the venue for this exhibition was of significance. Whilst Gus Fisher is well known for his support of the arts, his role in the New Zealand fashion industry is less well known today. The exhibition paid homage to Gus’ contribution to the fashion industry, within the Gallery that he generously supports. The foyer of the Gus Fisher Gallery was decorated to look like the El Jay showroom where buyers would be shown the new collections each season. This look was recreated with the original El Jay–Christian Dior cartouche, tables and vase all sourced from the now closed El Jay factory, offices and showroom in Kingston St, in Auckland. A mannequin greeted visitors on entry to the foyer and the requisite vase of fresh flowers completed the 'live' feel of the presentation.
Entering the gallery was reminiscent of walking into a department store display with garments displayed on a range of mannequins old and new, and deliberately grouped by garment type rather than by period in order to show the timelessness of the styles while the labels provided insight into the changes in fashion over the decades. The use of large ornate mirrors offered a further dimension adding to the 'salon' styling of the show and offering a view of the back of the garments. The overall look was completed with Kentia palms and salon chairs upholstered in Ultra Suede, two further style features borrowed from the original El Jay showroom, the chairs in fact the genuine article on loan from Kingston St.
A video interview with Gus Fisher recorded in April 2010 by Shirley Horrocks which played in a corridor off the foyer was a popular addition to the exhibition; visitors, young and old took time to sit and learn more about El Jay. The foyer and corridor also housed display cabinets of El Jay memorabilia including Fashion Awards, look books of Christian Dior and El Jay collections. The exhibition went on tour to Wellington with a scaled back version that occupied a section of the fashion floor at Kirkcaldie & Stains, much as it had done in its heyday when the department store was a proud stockists of both the El Jay and Christian Dior labels.
Gus Fisher died on Tuesday 20 July 2010, three days after the close of the Auckland exhibition making the timing and the tenor of Looking Terrific: The Story of El Jay all the more poignant. Thanks to this exhibition and the research that made it possible Gus Fisher’s contribution to the development of New Zealand fashion is now a matter of record which will be available for the future.
A reader with a history of El Jay was authored by exhibition curator Doris de Pont. Looking Terrific: the Story of El Jay is available through our shop.
The New Zealand Fashion Museum is for anyone with a love of fashion, heritage, innovation and creativity. With no fixed abode other than this online address, it is a museum dedicated to the curation of New Zealand’s rich fashion past, making it relevant for the present and future.
Established in 2010 as a Charitable Trust, it records and shares the stories of the people, objects and photographs that have contributed to the development of New Zealand's unique fashion identity. It makes them visible and accessible to a broad audience through pop-up exhibitions, publications and our online museum. Read more
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