Story: Clothes

Page 2. Men’s clothes

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Men’s clothing has been characterised by the use of sturdy fabrics, a restricted palette of black, blue, brown, white and grey, and standardised tailoring techniques. Changes in men’s clothing have been more subtle than those in women’s clothing.

Men – particularly those with white-collar occupations – have always shopped for clothing, fashionable or otherwise, and paid attention to their appearance. This contradicts the common belief that fashion, and indeed clothing in general, has not been a male concern.

1840s to 1890s

Mid-19th-century men’s clothing was based on four main garments: shirts, waistcoats, trousers and coats.

As early as 1840 there were men in New Zealand who took fashion and appearance seriously. Tailors’ advertisements quoting knowledge of up-to-date European styles indicate that fashion was used as a selling point. Yet writing about Wellington 10 years later a lack of ‘smartness’ was noted by one author.1 Frock coats and top hats were largely restricted to men in business and professional occupations.

1900s to 1940s

In the 20th century the most enduring form of men’s clothing was the suit, which underwent major and minor variations in fabric and style. In the first decades morning suits, frock coats and lounge suits were the main types of suits. Detachable collars, neckwear such as ties or cravats, tie pins or clips, watches and watch chains, studs, gloves and sticks were important dress accessories, along with hats and shoes.

Suit wearing became less prescriptive as the century progressed. When judged against British standards in the 1930s, New Zealand men were described as ‘not, in the main, conventional folk in the matter of attire’.2 Visiting royalty could provoke feelings of self-consciousness about what to wear. Few events beyond weddings and funerals called for the wearing of ‘correct’ clothing.

Dressing in a well-cut and up-to-date suit was not financially possible for countless men; neither was it necessary for those in many walks of life, such as farmers and labourers. A ‘best suit’ for church, town and other special occasions was all that was required. This could be a significant investment for a young man, and many suits aged with their wearers. Sports jackets and trousers had long-standing popularity.


Writer Janet Frame recalled: ‘During the Depression days my father’s suit was grey, and I do remember a search lasting hours up and down Thames Street to find a shop that sold a reel of grey cotton to match the thread of Dad’s suit. After the Depression, when he changed to navy blue, our shock and feeling of strangeness were similar to our feeling when Mother cut her hair…. In a life where people had few clothes and a man one suit and one overcoat, the clothes were part of the skin, like an animal’s fur.’3

There were major differences between the clothing of blue-collar and white-collar workers. Labourers wore cloth caps, open-necked or collarless shirts, with or without waistcoats, woollen trousers (usually with belts, not braces, by this time) and heavy boots. Sleeves were commonly rolled up. Overalls were more widely worn for work by the mid-20th century.

1950s to 2000s

Jeans were derived from working men’s clothing, and were first worn by young men as a distinctive youth style in the 1950s. Since then they have been available in many styles – flared or straight, tight or baggy, patched or studded, pristine or stained, belted or braced, slung high or low – and are typically worn with T-shirts. Both items are now worn universally. Almost all men wore hats when out in public until the 1960s.

Fashion fancier

Visitors to Eden Hore’s Glenshee farm in Central Otago can see a remarkable collection of 1970s New Zealand women’s clothes, with over 200 examples of what Hore called ‘high and exotic fashion’ on display. Hore preferred flamboyance in the garments he collected. All were intended as one-off pieces by designers such as Vinka Lucas, Maritza Tschepp, Kevin Berkhan and Colin Cole.

Suits made from synthetic fabrics, such as crimplene (made of terylene), became widely available in the 1970s. Menswear in this decade included a wider colour range, particularly browns, oranges and mustards, and wide shirt collars, ties, lapels and trouser cuffs. More casual work clothing, including short-sleeved shirts and walk shorts, was emerging, and few men were wearing three-piece suits and hats. A basic suit, shirt and tie remained standard business and formal wear though.

That fashion has a following with men in New Zealand in the 2000s is confirmed by the emergence of men’s fashion magazines such as FQ Men (2004–7) and menswear collections at New Zealand Fashion Week.

  1. Charlotte Godley, Letters from early New Zealand: 1850–1853. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1951, p. 57. Back
  2. Auckland Star, 11 January 1935, p. 5. Back
  3. Janet Frame, An autobiography. Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1989, p. 139. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona McKergow, 'Clothes - Men’s clothes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Fiona McKergow, published 5 Sep 2013