Page 1: Biography
Ensor, Kura Te Whiria
Waikato–Tainui; fashion designer, businesswoman
This biography, written by Natalie Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Kura Ensor was an Auckland-based Māori fashion entrepreneur who was part of a renaissance in Māori-influenced design during the 1970s. She ran a successful nationwide fashion business, selling garments which often incorporated Māori names, motifs and patterns. She was a role model for Māori women in business and was dedicated to serving her community. Her best-known dress, ‘Tania’, was worn by Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan when she greeted the Māori Land March on the steps of Parliament in October 1975.
Kura Te Whiria Davis was born at Manunui, a small sawmilling settlement near Taumarunui, on 24 February 1925, the daughter of Violet Moeroa Wilkinson and her husband, Robert Tiopira Davis. Violet was the daughter of Te Hinu Ellen Cribb and George Te Paoro Wilkinson, a Māori Land Court agent affiliated to Waikato-Tainui, while Robert was descended from the rangatira Hiria Tiopira of Iwi Tapu. Davis was a bushman and later worked as a fisherman. His family are affiliated with the Dargaville-based Iwi Tapu, and have a connection to Tāne Mahuta, the largest kauri tree in New Zealand, the atua of the forests and birds, and the son of Ranginui and Papatūānuku.
Kura spent her early years on Maniaiti Marae (Wallace Pā) in Manunui. She was the elder sister of three boys, of whom only one, Raymond (Chick), survived to adulthood. Like many women of her generation she was introduced to sewing by her mother, and began making her own clothes, as well as clothing for family and friends, at a young age.
When Kura was young the Davis family moved to Thames, where they lived by the beach. Kura attended the local primary school and Thames High School, where she took typing, business and professional courses, while maintaining an interest in fashion through her domestic dressmaking activities. After high school she held a number of office jobs.
Marriage and motherhood
Kura married Donald (Don) Henry Ensor, a butcher she had met at high school, in Hamilton on 31 December 1946. The couple had eloped, because Don’s parents, Sidney and Elizabeth Ensor, did not approve of their son marrying a Māori woman. Sidney was the mayor of Thames from 1931 to 1959, and came from a prominent Pākehā family with a long association with the district. To prove her parents-in-law wrong, Kura worked hard to forge a career for herself, and to be a strong role model for Māori women. Kura and Don’s only child, Sydney, was born in 1948.
In about 1951 the family moved to Auckland, settling in Grey Lynn. Kura worked in the office of Coca Cola until around 1952, when she took up an office position at Matheson Minster, a menswear manufacturer where her mother Violet worked on the sewing machines. Don worked for a butcher in Greenlane until 1963, when he opened his own butchery, KuraDon, in View Road, Glenfield. Kura helped run the shop, and studied pattern drafting while raising Sydney. She later shared her passion for fashion with Sydney, encouraging him to complete the same course. In the late 1960s the couple relocated the business to Hurstmere Road, Takapuna, operating under the name Don’s Meats. Kura’s name was removed from the business to avoid confusion with her growing fashion activities. The family settled in Northcote.
Fashion, fundraising and community
From a spare room in their Northcote home, Ensor began making clothing for her maternal cousins; her mother was the eldest of 14 children, so she had a large extended family to design for. She began moving towards a career in fashion, a natural fit for someone who was very glamorous and turned heads wherever she went; she did some modelling work and was a member of the New Zealand Modelling Association. She was a member of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and helped fundraise for it by hosting fashion parades, which were popular in New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s. Sydney photographed these events.
Kura’s designs incorporated Māori motifs and patterns, and she intended them to raise the profile of Māori design. When she compèred a fundraising fashion parade for the Arahina branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in 1969, she wore a white crêpe dress with a deep V-back and a pāua buckle, with the sleeves trimmed with rows of pāua shell which she had cut and polished. In acknowledgement of her fundraising work, and her promotion of Māori design, the Arahina branch made her an honorary member.
Gay Forties Limited
Kura established her own fashion label, Gay Forties Limited, after compèring an Easter fashion event at the Chateau Tongariro in 1969, where the dress she designed and wore was widely admired. Gay Forties was a small business, based initially in her Northcote home and later in a retail space in the Coachman Travel Lodge, Takapuna, where she employed three women to help her at peak times. In 1974 she moved to a new retail space in Hurstmere 70 Arcade, Takapuna, opposite Don’s Meats. Ensor had clients throughout New Zealand and also sold her designs from Paris Boutique, a retail outlet on Norfolk Island. In 1974 she travelled to Norfolk Island to compère a fashion parade at the South Pacific Hotel, with proceeds going to the local Wives and Mothers Club. The Norfolk Islander newspaper described Kura as a lively and entertaining compère, who was generous in sharing the story of her entry into the fashion business.
The name of her business captures the essence of her design practice: creating stylish garments for older, fuller-figured women. Ensor had attended Pierre Cardin fashion parades in Auckland and noted that there was little stylish fashion for women over 40 like herself. Boutique culture was flourishing in New Zealand, as it was overseas, but the garments sold in these stores and featured in fashion parades were aimed at young women. Advertisements indicate that she created garments in the standard women’s dress sizes, 10 to 18, in addition to offering a made-to-measure service for women who could not find a garment in the range they liked.
She specialised in making evening wear and what was known as ‘patio’ and ‘hostess wear’ and appreciated that the kaftan style provided a flattering silhouette for the fuller-figured woman. She also admired the Coco Chanel staple ‘little black dress’, which she designed in a range of styles. Looking to Paris as the leader in fashion styles was conventional practice for New Zealand designers at this time. At the same time, the development of Māori modernism by prominent artists such as Ralph Hōtere and Para Matchitt, and the Māori renaissance of the 1970s which fostered a stronger commitment to biculturalism, was translated into fashion through the incorporation of traditional Māori motifs. During the 1970s the national costume worn by New Zealand representatives at the Miss World pageant shifted from traditional Māori garments to a fusion of European-inspired high fashion with elements of Māori design. There was also demand for garments that reflected New Zealand’s heritage from women who were travelling overseas.
Kura celebrated Māori design by incorporating Māori motifs into her fabrics, with embellishments, and by giving her garments Māori names. A 1974 advertisement depicts the Gay Forties label nestled within a koru design. A black crêpe dress included in the 1969 fundraising parade was embroidered with small poi and worn with a tāniko headband. That same year the Māori Women’s Welfare League sponsored two entries in the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards. Kura entered the day and evening wear sections, choosing Māori names for her designs, Aotearoa and Marama. Aotearoa, a cream wool garment with pāua-shell trim, was taken to London and displayed at New Zealand House as part of a New Zealand Wool Board promotion.
An iconic black wool gown named ‘Tania’ caught the attention of the MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan when she saw it in the 1973 Cameo New Zealand Fashion Showcase. She purchased it, and later described it as a ‘prize in my wardrobe’.1 The gown featured a bare shoulder in the Cameo Fashion Showcase parade, but Tirikatene-Sullivan wore it with a black fabric sleeve. The gown was inspired by the shape of a Māori cloak and featured a screen-printed panel with a kōwhaiwhai motif in red, black and white. In her choice of dress when welcoming the Land March, Tirikatene-Sullivan signalled her support for the marchers and for the development of Māori fashion design. For Ensor, the gown embodied her desire to promote Māori identity and act as a role model for Māori women. To have the gown worn by a trailblazing Māori MP to greet another prominent wāhine, Dame Whina Cooper, was a career highlight for Kura.
‘Tania’ had a number of other notable outings: it was worn by Miss New Zealand, Pam King, at a Wool Board fundraising parade, and was part of a parade of gowns showcasing New Zealand wools at the Sydney Opera House in 1974. While it was widely reported that it was viewed by representatives of Vogue Paris and photographed for the February 1975 issue, the garment does not appear in this edition. The origin of this story, and whether the gown appeared in any international publications, remains a mystery.
Life after designing
Ensor retired the Gay Forties label in the mid-1970s; it was a small business and did not have the turnover required to justify a retail outlet in Takapuna. She continued to make wedding dresses and commissioned designer pieces from her home until the early 1990s when the couple returned to Thames to care for Don’s mother and his brother Milton. Ensor died in Thames on 18 January 2015, aged 89; Donald had died in 2006.
Thank you to Sindy Ensor for her help in telling Kura’s story.