17 October 2015 to 8 February 2016 at New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland
26 November 2016 to 19 February 2017 at The Dowse Art Museum
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. With a coastline in excess of 15,000 kilometres where no one lives more that 130 kilometres from the sea, New Zealanders are island people and never far from the edge. It is inevitable that this geography should play a part in defining who we are and how we stand in the world.
The At the Beach exhibition presents over 120 garments that help to tell the story of the evolution of summer fashion in New Zealand and explore how our relationship to the coast not only encapsulates our identity but how it has inadvertently influenced it and permeated our everyday existence. By looking at what we wore at the beach over the last 100 years we can see and experience in a visual and personal way some of that development, making connections that highlight the impact of living so close to the coastal margin. This exhibition covers a number of themes that invite you to look at past practice and also to reflect on how our unique beach culture is evident in our contemporary national fashion identity.
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 and 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.
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. These were heavy when wet 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. New ideas about health, fresh air, sports and exercise emerged and the swimsuit continued its shrinking trajectory exposing more and more skin; deeper-cut necklines, shorter legs and cutaway sections, removable shoulder straps and removable tops for men. Finally in the mid 1930s it became acceptable for men to fully expose their torsos, although not their navels. Even though World War II impacted negatively on civilian lives in the 1940s 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 had gave rise to the idea of separates, a more casual wardrobe that could be mixed, matched and layered and to save material the one-piece bathing suit had the middle cut out and became the two-piece. What we wore to the beach changed very rapidly after World War II as a consequence of new materials and labour-saving appliances that gave us the luxury of leisure time.
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. In the 1960s a youthful silhouette 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.
A word that conjure 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.
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.
"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 "play-suits", 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 had gave rise to the idea of separates, a more casual approach that could be mixed and matched and layered. It was acceptable for women to wear trousers and shorts, to be strong and physically active. Rayon and the newest synthetic fabric, nylon, took the place of wool and cotton and to save material the one-piece bathing suit had the middle cut out and became the two-piece.
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 three 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.
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.
These 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.
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 prestigeous 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 ’50s Hollywood glamour to a youthful ’60s Californian surfer look brands such as Jantzen and Catalina also included more activewear which was also made here.
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. Expozay swimsuits featured on the covers of Vogue, Dolly, Cleo and Sports Illustrated. In 1981 the company was honoured with a New Zealand Export Award.
Established in 1980 by Tony Hart, Moontide championed the beach-loving New Zealand lifestyle using stylised Maori 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 UK in 1998. The brand continues today, produced in China and sold in 50 countries.
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.
In 1961 Dutch immigrant designer Frank Carpay and patternmaker Robert Leek developed a range of beachwear for men and women. Carpay created his own Pacific-inspired designs which were printed on to towelling.
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 social media strategy, which includes an Instagram post of Lorde wearing their garments.
Designer Emma Burton and her artist husband Mark are behind the Emma Ford label. After collaborating on swimwear ranges for Cybèle, The Carpenter's Daughter and Kathryn Wilson, Emma Ford is being relaunched in 2015. The range is made in NZ and offers the body-confident woman high-fashion swimsuits and resort wear.
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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