Tam Cochrane came to national prominence in the late 1950s as the driving force behind the New Zealand Gown of the Year extravaganza.
"Five foot three, petite, red hair, well read and travelled, somewhat dynamic," is how Stuart Hill remembers his fashion entrepreneur stepmother.
Her fashion career started as a child model at the age of 12. Tam was short for 'Tamara' a name she seems to have adopted, as the given names on her birth certificate are 'Dulcie Maude'.
Her mother was a fashion buyer and Tam told the story in a New Zealand Herald interview (1997) that as a girl in the 1930s she had watched astounded, as traffic in Wellington’s Manners Street came to a halt. Her mother had organised a live fashion show in a shop window. Such was the kerfuffle that the police and fire brigade were called and her mother threatened with a stiff fine.
By the 1950s Tam was living in Auckland where she owned her own boutique, beauty salon and hat shop in Papatoetoe. The fashion events she created for her store were so successful, that manufacturers and charities began asking her to organise parades for them.
She began compering larger parades in Auckland and other parts of the country and by the end of the decade was nationally known as a fashion promoter. Tam Cochrane Fashion Promotions was formed in 1954.
Tam had met Fred Hill who owned Gainsborough Millinery Ltd in Durham Street in the early part of that decade, marrying him around 1955. Stuart Hill who was about five at the time remembers that he and his two older sisters modelled for parades compered by Tam during their school holidays at John Court’s and Farmers. Fashion promotion was to become a family business.
Spurred on by a trip to Australia, where she was invited to attend the Australian Gown of the Year in the Melbourne Town Hall, Tam raced home to New Zealand and registered the Gown of the Year title for the New Zealand market. This marked the beginning of an important epoch in New Zealand’s post-war fashion history.
Tam sold her other businesses and Fred moved his hat factory premises to New Lynn which also became the home of the fashion promotion company and headquarters for Gown of the Year.
The first New Zealand Gown of the Year was launched in Auckland at the Peter Pan Cabaret in 1958 and travelled to centres throughout the country. The competition was based on the romance of the big ball gown. There were other categories including sportswear and bridal gowns but they all lead up to the climax of each show – ultra-glamorous evening wear by local designers. The actual gown of the year was judged by popular vote and the eventual winner was awarded the impressive Tam Cochrane Trophy as well as other prizes and the kudos of winning, which could launch a career.
It was soon apparent that there were financial and technical problems with mounting such an ambitious project but Tam was not one to give up. She and Fred put their heads together and in 1960 launched the famous 'Fashion on Wheels', a convoy of cars, caravans and models that would become a national phenomenon until 1964. The ball gowns would hang full length in a specially designed compartment ready for an almost instant parade on arrival in a provincial town or city.
Tam’s standards for entries were exacting. "Should she consider an entry does not meet with the standard required she has no hesitancy in rejecting it. This stringency has resulted in increased fashion sense and more meticulous workmanship," wrote one newspaper commentator. "She has no qualms about rejecting even finished entries that do not meet her rigid standards," wrote another. "Tough? Maybe, but invaluable train and discipline for dressmakers, especially young ones, whom the contest aims to promote."
Designer Kevin Berkahn has described Tam Cochrane as being innovative and far ahead of her time. The two met when at age 20 he decided to enter Gown of the Year in 1960 in what was to be his very first runway show. At that time she thought he was "an overweight country boy in a suit carrying a couple of suitcases." (Berkahn Fashion Designer – Kevin Berkahn with Maggie Blake). She changed her mind as soon as he opened the suitcases and saw the exquisite quality of his work. Kevin recalls his first entry, 'Fascination' his most elaborate creation, the full coat requiring 75 metres of sequinned tulle!
"What I remember most about Tam was her energy," recalls Di Goldsworthy (nee Cooper), who modelled for three of the Gown of the Year shows.
Tam was also a hard taskmaster and set strict rules for the models, most of whom were under 20. "I remember we had a show in Christchurch and we’d had the roughest ferry crossing. People were being sick all night – we were green. We arrived in Christchurch and the catwalk was swaying. How we ever got through that show I have no idea," Di says.
In 1963 the energetic Tam took time to spread her wings further than New Zealand. An article in Women’s Viewpoint magazine (September, 1963) notes that: "So pleased has Tam Cochrane been with the improved New Zealand manufacture, that two months ago she took a parade of New Zealand fashions to Tahiti – day clothes, cocktail wear and beach sets that created a sensation in the French centre of the Pacific."
Tam cited the advent of television and potential drop off of audiences as the reason they decided to quit Gown of the Year. By that time she and Fred had produced six of them but in truth by 1964 the year of their last show, the big romantic gown had had its day. Europe’s youth fashion revolution was about to explode in New Zealand and fashion would never be quite the same. Tam had the nous to quit while she was ahead.
She did however, realise her aspirations for the Gown of the Year competition which were "to foster an interest both here and overseas in the undoubted talent of New Zealand designers, and to give, particularly to the younger members of the profession, the encouragement and incentive to achieve the highest standards of Creative Art." (The New Zealand Gown of the Year, by Claire Regnault, 2002). The national reach of Gown of the Year was a precursor to the televised Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards and other popular fashion shows of the 1980s and 1990s.
Fashion Promotions Ltd became an event organising company, though according to Stuart Hill, Tam and Fred maintained contact with friends from the fashion industry for many years.
In 1997 Tam hosted an exclusive screening of The Last Film Search from the NZ Film Archive which featured footage from the 1961 Gown of the Year competition. Footage from the shows still exists in the New Zealand Film Archive. Tam and Fred gifted the Gown of the Year archives to the Hawke’s Bay Museum in 1999.
Text by Katherine Findlay, with acknowledgement to Stuart Hill.
Published July 2019.