Though early 19th-century colonisers envisaged New Zealand as a largely rural society, they also founded towns and cities, in part because of their perceived civilising influence. Urban centres provided opportunities for regular social contact. Clubs, theatres, galleries and churches, and events like musical recitals and political gatherings, facilitated cultural development. Cities were (and still are) places for people to see and be seen – places where trends are made and followed.
Cities are not the only sites of culture – New Zealand’s rural culture has thrived despite long-term and ongoing urbanisation – but they do contain a critical mass of people who can interact and network on a large scale. New immigrants from different cultures usually arrive in cities and often settle there. Subcultures and fashion and music trends can arrive from abroad or emerge first in cities, and city language is often more innovative than that in rural districts. Codes of behaviour also evolve to make cities run more smoothly.
Because of their size, cities present a dual opportunity to blend in with the crowd and stand out against it. They provide safety in numbers, which allows subcultures to thrive and trends to grow and spread. The inner city is often the seedbed for subcultures – it is an easily agreed-upon meeting place, it houses the shops, cafés, venues and public spaces where people congregate, and it is the hub for public transport which brings people from the suburbs and out of town.
Occasionally rural clothing makes its way into the cities and becomes fashionable. High-end designer Karen Walker began designing clothing for Swanndri, makers of a well-known bush-shirt, in 2006, and Swanndri stores opened in major cities. However, Walker’s range and the stores did not last long, which suggests the label’s urban appeal was more fad than enduring fashion. Gumboots (with a designer twist) also made the leap from paddock to city street in the 2000s.
Trends in things like fashion and music tend to start in city centres and move out to suburbs, towns and rural districts. Rural to urban transfer of culture is more unusual, though not unknown.
In the past New Zealanders who wanted a taste of big city life and culture had to travel abroad. While this still happened in the 2000s, New Zealand cities had become more cosmopolitan and lively. Cultural influences from abroad remained very important, and people kept up with trends through print media and digital technology.
Early colonists were encouraged to bring musical instruments with them to New Zealand. In 1848 Edward Jerningham Wakefield described music as ‘a recreation in the intervals of a Colonist’s labour, and as relief to the solitude of a distant location’.1
Music was played in homes, churches, pubs, hotels and at outdoor venues such as band rotundas. Overseas musicians and companies visited the new towns and military bands played regularly. In Auckland and Wellington, balls and classical music events were held at Government House. Christchurch became noted for its church and choral music. Concerts in early Dunedin usually comprised ballads and folk songs, which reflected its working-class settler population.
New styles of music, largely imported from overseas, emerged first in cities – from jazz to rock ’n’ roll to punk to hip hop. The associated lifestyles often led to moral panics in mainstream society, which saw them as threats.
Early rock ’n’ roller Johnny Cooper found success with a tune of his own called ‘Pie cart rock ’n’ roll’, released in 1957. The song referred to a pie cart he visited while in Whanganui running talent shows. It is believed to be New Zealand’s first indigenous rock ’n’ roll recording, though ‘Resuscitation rock’, written by Wellington teenager Sandy Tansley in March 1957, may have been released a few weeks earlier than Cooper’s song.
Jazz became popular in New Zealand cities in the 1920s. Jazz cabarets, where music was often improvised and dancing styles informal, were a city phenomenon frequented by fashionable people. Some venues offered jazz coupled with classical music.
Rock ’n’ roll arrived in New Zealand in 1955 when Wellington-based country singer Johnny Cooper (popularly known as the ‘Māori cowboy’) released a cover of American Bill Haley’s hit song ‘Rock around the clock’.
Local performers had to move to the larger cities if they wanted to succeed. Johnny Devlin (the ‘New Zealand Elvis’) grew up in Whanganui and performed at talent shows throughout the lower North Island but only hit the big time once he moved to Auckland. By the late 1950s all smaller cities and towns had amateur rock ’n’ roll bands, which played at dance halls or informal venues like church halls and youth clubs.
Punk gigs were characterised by high-energy, expletive-laden performances, on-stage brawls and heckling between band and audience. Hard-core, vocal women fans were sometimes labelled ‘butch slags’.2 Male fans who took punk’s violent energy too far were called ‘boot boys’. By 1979 boot boys were a problem in Auckland, beating up other fans and trashing venues, some of which closed as a result. When Auckland band the Terrorways played in Wellington, boot-boy fans followed them down, smashing toilets at the venue and assaulting locals.
The first punk bands – including the Suburban Reptiles and the Scavengers – formed in Auckland in the late 1970s and were soon followed by groups in Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin. Some bands toured provincial centres. Punk is still heard in the 2000s.
Dance parties where DJs played electronic music before large crowds happened in New Zealand cities from the mid-1980s and continued into the 2000s. The parties, often involving recreational drug use, were mostly held in large warehouse-style venues.
Auckland is the centre of New Zealand hip hop, which first emerged in the mid-1980s, and has been closely associated with Māori and Pacific Island performers from South Auckland.
In the 2000s Wellington was known for its musical collectives, including Fat Freddy’s Drop and Fly My Pretties. Fat Freddy’s Drop member Mu said of the city, ‘[E]veryone exists in this little valley. You’re forced to live with people in quite close quarters. So all the different scenes exist and they have to learn how to respect … and support each other.’3
Early 1980s Dunedin groups like the Clean and the Chills, recorded by Christchurch label Flying Nun, typified what became known as the ‘Dunedin sound’ – droning vocals, jangly guitars, simple drumbeats and keyboards.
Venues allow performers to test their music and gather fans, and also host overseas acts which bring new sounds. New Zealand’s most important venues are in big cities. Auckland’s notable spots included the Jive Centre (a 1950s rock ’n’ roll venue), Zwines (a punk venue of the late 1970s) and the Gluepot, which hosted bands from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Other important venues have included Wellington’s Bar Bodega and Christchurch’s Dux de Lux. Some small towns also have nationally recognised venues – Ōamaru’s Penguin Club is a good example.
Food and music are closely connected. In Wellington in the 1960s, people would go to cafés like The Settlement and Monde Marie to eat continental European food and listen to contemporary music.
From street culture to high-end fashion, cities have provided the people and the spaces for indigenous or imported trends to surface and later trickle out to other parts of the country. Cities are the best place to watch different fashions in action. In the 2000s, improved technology (particularly the internet) meant that people in smaller centres and rural areas could access information about fashion trends much faster than in the past.
Until the 1970s people dressed formally when visiting towns and cities for shopping and social purposes – main streets were a sea of hats, gloves and smart handbags. Dress slowly became more casual. Accessories like hats and silk scarves were worn in rural areas and small towns when they had disappeared from the cities, though in the 2000s the occasional formally dressed elderly man or woman could still be seen in city centres.
Street wear, based on skateboarding and hip-hop music culture, has been strongly associated with urban environments in New Zealand. Hooded sweatshirts, baggy low-slung jeans, caps and sneakers reached uniform status among young people in the 1990s and 2000s. Hip-hop culture added puffy jackets and ostentatious accessories (‘bling’) to the mix. Many New Zealand fashion designers concentrate on street wear.
In 2005 Paraparaumu’s Coastlands mall banned people wearing hooded sweatshirts (‘hoodies’) with the hood up. Management argued that youths committing crimes in the mall invariably wore the garments, concealing their faces with the hood. Some shoppers also felt intimidated. But law-abiding hoodie wearers were outraged. New Zealand Aotearoa Adolescent Health and Development later instituted ‘Hoodie Day’ to counteract the negative connotations.
Larger cities accommodate diverse subcultures, which are most recognisable by clothing. In the 1950s male bodgies favoured tight stovepipe trousers, long baggy coats and jackets, bright shirts and pullovers, while female widgies wore tight trousers or skirts with splits up the back, sleeveless blouses, silk scarves and slip-on flat shoes. Punks (around since the late 1970s) are associated with torn black clothes, spiky hair and facial piercing. West Auckland and Hutt Valley ‘bogans’ sport black jeans, heavy-metal band T-shirts and mullet hairstyles (short at the front and sides, long at the back).
Distinctive urban subcultures that emerged in the 2000s included closplayers, who liked costumes and role-play. Emos wore very tight jeans, cardigans and heavy eye makeup, and affected depressed, world-weary attitudes.
Auckland, with its warm climate, is known for its casual approach to dress – as is New Zealand generally. When high-end fashion label Versace closed its only New Zealand store in Auckland in 2005, its manager blamed the casual style wealthy businessmen favoured, which he described as the ‘property developer look’1 – jeans, white shirt and trainers. Wellington, home of the public sector, has been portrayed as a city of bureaucrats in dark suits. Christchurch – which historically has a greater sense of class difference – has struggled to shrug off a conservative image as the ‘navy [blue] and twin-set centre of New Zealand’.2 Chilly Dunedin encouraged dark, layered clothing, a look which inspired local fashion label Nom*D.
New Zealand’s fashion industry is based in the cities, which contain fashion schools, a sustainable consumer base, industry networks and exporting facilities. Auckland leads the way, followed by Wellington and Dunedin. The annual Hokonui Fashion Design Awards, held in Gore, Southland, buck this trend – though most winners come from the main centres.
New Zealand English does not differ significantly between cities, towns and rural districts – but words and phrases do vary on a regional basis. Linguistic innovations often happen in cities and later spread to smaller places. Urban subcultures all have their own jargon.
A 2003 study of urban and rural school children found that while linguistic differences between the two groups were not significant, certain words and phrases were unique to urban areas. Urban children used terms from TV and American slang more readily – ‘da bomb’ (the best, cool) had the strongest urban association of any term in the study.
City dwellers are often thought to speak faster than their rural counterparts. South Auckland is associated with Māori and Pacific Island ‘homey’ or hip-hop culture, which fuses local accents and phrases with American slang. Polynesian words like lavalava (wrap-around skirt) and taro (root vegetable) are also common in everyday speech there. Christchurch is sometimes disparaged on the basis that some residents speak with a ‘plummy’ English-sounding accent.
In January 2008 Auckland businessman Bruce Emery fatally stabbed 15-year-old Pihema Cameron after catching him and a friend tagging his garage door. In a controversial decision, Emery was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. Critics of graffiti have argued that tagging starts young people on the road to more serious crimes – but Cameron’s death has been the most serious criminal event associated with tagging in New Zealand to date.
Graffiti is a form of grass-roots visual expression which is found throughout urban centres, sometimes expressing political slogans. Modern forms of graffiti linked to hip-hop culture emerged in New York and spread to New Zealand in the 1980s. Tags (a stylised version of the writer’s name or pseudonym) and pieces (large murals) were the most common forms of graffiti in New Zealand cities in the early 2000s.
Graffiti is a controversial and contested urban issue. Tagging garners the most criticism. Practitioners see it as a way of gaining status among their peers and challenging mainstream society. Opponents see it as vandalism and symptomatic of social breakdown. Graffiti pieces have become more acceptable, especially when they are painted with the permission of property owners or in public spaces set aside for this purpose.
Most local councils have graffiti eradication or management policies. In 2008 tagging and graffiti became a specific offence against property, and the sale of spray-paint cans to under-18-year-olds was prohibited.
In 2006 the Auckland City Council proposed banning billboards from the central city and major shopping centres like Newmarket so people could better appreciate the buildings, heritage and landscapes. After intense lobbying by the advertising industry the council adopted a more moderate by-law and allowed existing billboards to remain in these areas.
Billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising are a predominantly urban form of communication. Like graffiti, large-scale advertising is a dominant – and contested –feature of urban landscapes. Some argue that advertising contributes to the city’s vitality and liveliness, while others see it as visual pollution. Unlike graffiti, outdoor advertising does not emerge from urban subcultures, but from corporate firms and their clients.
City dwellers often abide by commonsense behavioural codes which help make cities run smoothly. Examples include able-bodied people giving up seats on public transport for the elderly and infirm, pregnant women and small children, and keeping to the left on escalators and busy inner-city footpaths. Visitors, new residents and others can transgress codes and receive some criticism for their blunders.
Not all urban practices facilitate good community relations or make cities run smoothly. Strangers often avoid eye contact when in close quarters such as lifts. Pedestrian jay-walking (crossing roads at uncontrolled points) is common in cities. In the early 2000s the great majority (more than 90%) of pedestrian accidents in New Zealand occurred on urban roads, and 60% of people hospitalised because of their injuries lived in the Auckland, Wellington or Canterbury regions (which have the largest urban populations). Unlike in the United States, jay-walking is not illegal in New Zealand, though if a pedestrian is within 20 metres of a crossing it must be used.
Bauer, Laurie, and Winifred Bauer. Playground talk: dialects and change in New Zealand English. Wellington: School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, 2003.
Dix, John. Stranded in paradise: New Zealand rock and roll, 1955 to the modern era. Auckland: Penguin, 2005.
Lindsey, David G., and Robin A. Kearns. ‘The writing’s on the wall: graffiti, territory and urban space in Auckland.’ New Zealand Geographic 50 no. 2 (1994): 7–13.
Shute, Gareth. Hip hop music in Aotearoa. Auckland: Reed, 2004.
Yska, Redmer. All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993.
A selection of stories about New Zealand music, from NZHistory.net.
A website about punk and dance music in New Zealand, written by someone closely involved in those scenes.
Auckland graffiti art website.
The site of Fashion Industry New Zealand, the fashion industry lobby group.
A website about NZ fashion, music and culture.
Tales of Wellington’s café scene, from NZHistory.net.