Black in Fashion

By Insider – Suzanne Peri-Chapman

Black in Fashion: Wearing the colour black in New Zealand

From 9 Sept to 24 Oct at Britomart Precinct, Corner of Gore and Galway Streets, Auckland
Exhibition Curator (and style icon) Doris de Pont, New Zealand Fashion Museum

I was lucky enough to be given a personal tour of the Black in Fashion exhibition, by Doris de Pont herself, and was treated to the stories behind the garments. However, if you are there by yourself, the stories are told on the notices next to each piece, and there is also an excellent catalogue, with an essay by Ms de Pont that again includes the stories, in more detail.

I went into the exhibition wanting to be told exactly why I, as a good child of Wellington, New Zealand, wear black as much as I, and my compatriots, do.  I knew that for me it wasn’t about wearing the All Black colours – although yes, I’d like to see Richie hoisting the Cup aloft on the 23 of October.

I found, to my delight, that black permeates our culture in many ways, and from further back in our history than I had given thought to. In the exhibition, there is a beautiful Victorian two-piece dress from 1892, which has several different kinds of lace, you guessed it – all black, except for the neck-piece. It belonged to a woman who lived in Opotiki, and had eleven (yes eleven) children. The staggering thing about the dress is how tiny the waist is… I guess she had a certain amount of running around to do, what with eleven children and no appliances to help, not as much as a one-blade blitzer. Black was seen as something of a status symbol then, and for special occasions, she remained stylish.

There was black as seen for authority figures – including Sir Keith Holyoake’s Governor General White Tie suit. Sir Keith was GG and also a long-serving Prime Minister of New Zealand. His suit is exhibited with what, at first glance, appears to be the regalia of office, however on closer inspection the medals and other pieces are cleverly made of paper as, of course, these valuable objects are kept elsewhere. Doris pointed out that the suit had been exhibited with a wee paunch, in keeping with the stateliness of the man and his office.

It’s worthwhile peering at the garments up close, as there is a wealth of detail to be taken in.

The New Zealand farming traditions are not forgotten, from Skellerup Gumboots to the good old black shearer’s singlet. Designer Anne Garvey’s fashion take on the singlet is displayed… with embroidery around the work-worn holes, making a shearer’s singlet into an LBD (Little Black Dress).

Speaking of New Zealand icons, Sam Hunt’s troubadour outfit is there, including the stovepipe black trousers he called his “Foxton Straights”. Sam is a New Zealand poet, who travelled around the country reading his poems in pubs, with his dog. The Foxton Straights is a piece of straight road where, back in the day, people used to race. (People including another of my uncles, who raced his BSA motorbike there and was clocked at 96 miles per hour). In those days, you got a badge of honour for speeding on the Straights, not a ticket.

Moving on to the truly glamorous – an award-winning evening dress by Konstantina Moutos. For those in the know, THE dress – the one Konstantina won’t give to any museum for permanent exhibition – how lucky we are to have it here on loan. A beautiful sheath, exquisitely cut.

There’s Karen Walker’s famous pearl print dress… how I want it. (Sigh)

There is the Maori/Pacific influence apparent in several pieces, including Tino Glam’s flax outfit.

There are, of course, our famous sporting colours, All Blacks, Tall Blacks, and so on, including a woollen gym dress which the Netball team had to play in, complete with black woolly stockings (yes, stockings, not pantyhose).

This Black in Fashion exhibition makes us ask questions about our cultural heritage, and offers possible answers. So, do I now know why I wear black? Yes – I like to think that I am channelling my ancestors, my sportspeople, my poets, my designers, my farmers… all the aspects of New Zealand life that have come together to make us who we are today.

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