Making Air New Zealand's Replica Uniforms

For Air New Zealand’s 75 year anniversary exhibition the airline required many of the historical uniforms to be recreated, either to go on display or to be worn by staff for celebratory events. The job of creating the replicas was given to costume designers Barbara Darragh, who organised the process, and Marion Olsen, who was the patternmaker and cutter for the project. The New Zealand Fashion Museum wanted to find out more about the project and was fortunate enough to do the following Q&A with Barbara and Marion.

New Zealand Fashion Museum: What was the process like from the initial research to finishing the replicas and how long did it all take?

Barbara Darragh: The research for reproduction was all sourced from the wonderful work done by the Air New Zealand research department, as they were gathering information for the Air New Zealand - Celebrating 75 years of flying exhibition in Wellington. The period of time was approximately three months from measuring the original garments to delivery to Air New Zealand.

Marion Olsen: All the research and information came to me from Barbara Darragh (and Bob Buck for the Te Papa display). Also having most of the originals available to us was a tremendous help. I cannot remember the actual man hours but I do know the entire job took several months.

NZFM: How did you access the original garments and what was it like to work with them?

Marion Olsen: The originals were kept in the Air New Zealand archives and made available to us to photograph and measure. This made my job so much easier as I was able to make the cut as authentic as possible. I made up the pattern from the measurements I had taken from the original (no garment had a size label in it). When the sample was made I was then able to try it on one of my dressmaker’s dummies and whichever size it fitted was the size I attributed to that pattern. I then graded up and down to the sizes that Air New Zealand had requested.

A 1980s ground crew uniform on display. Image © Simon Wong.

NZFM: Was there anything that you were surprised or excited by when you got to inspect the originals?

Marion Olsen: The earliest original available to us was the Dior designed suit. Made about the time I started my career in the fashion industry with El Jay, so it was more nostalgia than surprise for me. It was interesting to see the manufacturer’s labels inside some of the garments, labels that were well known in the 60s and 70s but don’t exist now.

Barbara Darragh: I was surprised and delighted with the amount of detail in some of the uniforms, especially the beautiful Vinka Lucas uniform with its framed covered buttons, handmade buttonholes, the detailed screen printed blouse worn under the pinafore dress and the machine stitching of the uniforms hats - time and labour not given to uniforms today. Many of the uniform hats were also labour intensive and Hills Hats recreated them so well.

NZFM: Were there any challenges in trying to source similar materials to create the replicas?

Barbara Darragh: The post-war barathea cloth uniform. The cloth required a full backing to recreate the weight of the original. All the uniform cloth required a like fabric in a greige, which was then dyed to match the original uniform colours. All the detailing and trims also required a dye colour match. Replica buttons and cuff links were made, some sculpted while the metal uniform buttons were spun cast as were the badges. The early pilot badges were beautifully made in Pakistan thanks to a Hills Hats contact. Hat felts were dyed to match the original colours and the facric prints were sublimation printed by a company in Wellington.

These TEAL suits were made from barathea fabric. Image from Whites Aviation, Alexander Turnbull Library, WA-03093-F.

NZFM: Were you able to do everything yourselves or did you require outside help for some of the garments?

Marion Olsen: As far as the garment construction went, I made the patterns using the measurements from the original or photographs where there was no existing garment. I sampled the first off so that I was able to check my pattern, and where there were multiples I was lucky to have Minerva Malette to sew them.

Barbara Darragh: I did depend on vendors. The hats were made by Hills Hats in Wellington, they were very gracious with their time and support. North Shore dyers colour-matched the uniform cloth where required. Spin Casters made the metal badges and buttons.

NZFM: Which era's uniforms were the most difficult to recreate and why?

Marion Olsen: The earliest ones from the 40s and 50s were the most difficult as I had only visual references. And of course all photos are taken with the front of the uniform facing the camera, leaving me to guess what the back would look like. As I have worked for many years in the film industry recreating period costumes, I had a fair idea how they would have been constructed. There were a lot more 'rules' regarding garment construction then than we see in today’s fashion.

Barbara Darragh: The work involved with pulling together all the details of the Vinka Lucas uniforms.

NZFM: Did you have any favourite pieces to work on and what was it like to see them finished and finally on display?

Marion Olsen: I enjoyed doing the 1940s suits which were very military. I made these as authentically as I was able with horse hair canvas for reinforcing (as opposed to the modern iron-on fusible). All this was carefully pad-stitched into the garment made easier by the fact that I had pure wool barathea to work with, the exact same fabric the originals were made from. Wool is perfect for tailoring as it will easily steam into shape. I have yet to see them on display, but I was very proud of all the work we did and proud of the finished product.

NZFM: How many garments were created in total for this project and what was the intended use of them all?

Marion Olsen: My job was in two lots; one, which Bob Buck managed, was for the exhibition at Te Papa, and in November at Auckland Museum. Mostly the exhibited garments were original, but there were some gaps where no original existed so I recreated these from photographs. This was made up of the 1940s summer suit and shirt (very military), the 1940s winter coat (military also), a blouse to complete an existing 1950s suit, and a nurse’s uniform. The rest of the uniforms I worked with Barbara on.

NAC 'nurse style' uniforms, 1959. Image © Air New Zealand.

Barbara Darragh: I was responsible for the bulk make of uniforms to be worn by current crew members for the 75 year anniversary exhibition opening and for various presentations and public events.

NZFM: What has the reception been like for the recreations and what feedback have you had about them?

Marion Olsen: I was told that Air New Zealand was very happy with them, and according to a relative who not only worked for Air New Zealand, but also modelled one of the uniforms, the girls (and guys wearing pilots and steward’s uniforms) had a lot of fun wearing them.

NZFM: Do you have stories from the process of creating the replicas that you'd like to share with the NZFM readers?

Marion Olsen: Interesting bit of information - Air New Zealand (or it was NAC then) once recruited nurses and teachers as their hostesses and the nurses wore their nursing uniforms with the NAC epaulettes and insignia. I was given several studio photos of a hostess in her nurse’s uniform supplied to us by the actual nurse who was still alive. Bob Buck was able to chat with her and her memory of her uniforms and what they were made of was still very clear. She told him that only short hostesses (up to 5 foot 3 or 4" I think) were recruited as they worked on the old Sunderland flying boats, the doors of these being very low. Most passengers had to duck to embark or disembark.

Interview by Evelyn Ebrey. Banner image by Simon Wong.

Published December 2015. 

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