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Published: 20 May 2022

By Andy Ross

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The Dress Circle

The islands of New Zealand were cut off from the international world of fashion by the Second World War during the first part of the 1940s.

Before this fashion was something imported from overseas; France, Britain, the USA... In Auckland however a garment industry had been quietly growing with skilled patternmakers, cutters, pressers, machinists, beaders and embroiderers occupying the top floors of inner city building. This growth was made possible by a clientele with money and discernment, and was fed, in part, by the arrival of American servicemen who were prepared to spend on fashion for their companions. Salons and department stores showed off their garments with live mannequins and, as was the way in London and Paris, clients were invited to sit while models were paraded in the clothes from which could be chosen outfits for made to measure pieces. This was the period when an All Black captain and coach, Fred "The Needle" Allen, established a fashion business, producing womenswear designed by his wife, Norma, and designer Betty Kendal with "occasional contributions by other staff members". These garments were sold across the country for more than 40 years. 

 Dior's New Look threw a spanner in the works of NZ fashion. With a veritable army of competent and skilled dressmakers who were perfectly capable of making up their own clothes at home, thank you very much, the length of skirt became a battleground between an older generation who valued the lines and luxury of longer lengths and younger women who enjoyed the freedom and flattery of shorter skirts. It was Milne & Choyce department store who took charge with a campaign designed to sell the New Look to New Zealanders and soon Dior gowns were on sale in the country. Along with the change for women, men soon found that their tastes had changed and the short jackets of pre-war suiting were swapped for longer, Edwardian revival looks. 

American fashion too gained a following. In Invercargill H. & J. Smith presented American fashion designers of 1947, a collection that had been assembled to mark the joint 75th birthday of the Metropolitan Museum of New York and Bloomingdale's department store. This collection was brought to Sydney and was then brought over by NZ businessmen at considerable cost. The modern materials, manufacturing methods, distinct look, and wearability of the garments soon gained favour in New Zealand, and have continued to influence the country's fashion identity since. 

(This is the first part of a series of articles derived from the book The Dress Circle. Next week, the middle decades.)