Story: Clothes

Page 1. Women’s clothes

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1840s to 1890s

In the 19th century women’s fashion in New Zealand took its lead from London and Paris. Fashion extracts from British periodicals were reprinted in New Zealand newspapers from the early 1840s. Fashion was largely an elite concern, revolving around dressmakers, milliners, mantlemakers (who made cloaks) and stay and corset makers.

In the 1850s and 1860s domestic sewing machines and paper patterns became available, making home dressmaking easier and giving more women the chance to be fashionable.

Night attire

In 1880 politician William Rolleston refused his wife Mary’s request to buy an evening dress. Her response is a brilliant exercise in restrained outrage: ‘As regards the dress I have not got it and gather from your remarks that I am not to…. I would infinitely rather go out always in my nightgown than put on a dress that always provoked a financial panic. And if your superior wisdom decides that a nightgown is the most suitable evening dress for our circumstances, I am content – life is short enough anyway.’1

Considerable skill was needed to accurately cut, piece and fit a woman’s dress and style a hat or a corset to match. Women’s dresses had tight bodices and full-length skirts, and were often trimmed with ruching or fringing. Skirts were supported by dome-shaped crinolines (flexible metal cages underneath) in the mid-19th century and bustles (pads worn at the back) in the late 19th century. Corsets gave shape to the waist.

The health effects of restrictive women’s clothing were debated in the late 19th century. Feminists advocated ‘rational’ dress (a jacket, blouse and knickerbockers) instead of a corset and long skirt. From the 1890s women’s increased participation in sports, such as cycling, encouraged lighter, looser styles that allowed freedom of movement. Tailor-made serge jackets and skirts, worn with a blouse, were a new form of daywear.

Swaddling women

Some 19th-century feminists linked women’s clothes with oppression. Alice Burns wrote that they were ‘the swaddling clothes of a sex that has not yet asserted its right to perfect freedom.’2 Swaddling clothes were strips of cloth wrapped around a young baby’s body to restrict its movement.

1900s to 1940s

The first decade of the 20th century was a decade of unabashed femininity in women’s fashion. Machine- and hand-made lace was used in abundance. Oversized hats, often adorned with ostrich feathers, were a striking feature. Some women went without corsets.

From the First World War necklines were cut lower and skirts became shorter. In the 1920s women’s clothing was noticeably simpler, looser and less restrictive. Tubular, low-waisted dresses were worn at mid-calf or knee length, making footwear more visible. Brassieres and girdles replaced corsets. Close-fitting cloche hats were worn, and gloves remained important on formal occasions.

In the 1930s waistlines returned to their usual position. Dresses with bias-cut draped skirts were fashionable, as were fox furs. Suits were a staple feature of women’s wardrobes. Some women wore shorts and trousers for outdoor recreation such as tramping, but most sports were played in skirts.

During the Second World War new clothing was rationed. Economies were made; jackets and skirts were often left unlined. Emphasis was placed on styles that were serviceable and elegant. Tailored jackets were worn with blouses and knee-length skirts. Hats and gloves remained necessities. Immediately after the war French fashion designer Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ offered a more feminine aesthetic, with a nipped-in waist and longer, fuller skirts. Shoes had a moderately high heel and were tapered at the front.

1950s to 2000s

In the 1950s trousers became more common for women. Women’s trousers were tapered, and came in a variety of tartan, checked and striped fabrics. They were worn with colourful sweaters. Strapless evening dresses and swimsuits were now available. Conservative dressers wore twinsets (a matching woollen jumper and cardigan) with pleated skirts.

Synthetic fabrics were much more widely used in the 1960s. They could be permanently pleated and did not need ironing. Many garments were stiffly structured, with bold detailing, such as top-stitching and large buttons. Hemlines shot up above the knee, culminating in the miniskirt and mini-shift. Pantyhose replaced stockings and suspenders. Towering platform-heeled shoes were fashionable later that decade and into the next.

In the 1970s hippies went back to nature, wearing flowing dresses of cotton muslin with pintucks, lace and braid. Paisley and floral motifs were popular. Unisex styles, such as jeans and T-shirts, became more prevalent. Some feminists shunned fashion by wearing dungarees. Hat-wearing was now uncommon.

By the 1980s many more women were in the paid workforce than previously. Some adopted a corporate style of brightly coloured suits with big shoulder pads, while others opted for casual sportswear, including running shoes. Trousers were full at the waist and tapered at the ankle. In the late 1980s import restrictions were lifted, prompting a wave of clothing factory closures as imported garments became available.

The New Zealand fashion design industry assumed more importance from the 1990s. In the mid-20th century New Zealand had few recognised fashion designers, a large, professional garment industry and many home sewers, but in the 2000s this situation was completely reversed.

  1. Quoted in ‘My hand will write what my heart dictates’: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends, edited by Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald. Auckland: Auckland University Press, Bridget Williams Books, 1996, pp. 292–293. Back
  2. New Zealand Graphic, 15 July 1893, p. 663. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona McKergow, 'Clothes - Women’s clothes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Fiona McKergow, published 5 Sep 2013