Story: Clothes

Page 5. Clothing and identity

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Clothing is one of the most immediate ways of communicating identity. European clothing is the dominant mode in New Zealand, as in many other parts of the world.

A national dress?

New Zealand does not have a specific national dress. Customary Māori clothing is the only form of dress that is distinctive to New Zealand. Kahu (cloaks) give significant mana and honour to official occasions, such as royal tours and state funerals.

In Europe, national dress evolved from peasant or folk styles and was linked with nationalist movements. Many of these forms of dress, most notably the Scottish kilt, were brought to New Zealand by migrants.

Subtle details mark out Pākehā New Zealanders travelling overseas. In the 19th century these included a piece of pounamu (greenstone) on a man’s watch-chain. The 21st-century equivalent was a pounamu pendant.

Cross-cultural clothing

With European settlement Māori men and women – especially those living near mission stations and town settlements – began wearing European clothing. One way Māori obtained European clothing was as payment in land transactions. Māori men and women wore European clothing in a variety of ways and on their own terms. Many outfits blended Māori and European styles.

Māori design has had an impact on European clothing in New Zealand. A widely used motif is the spiral koru, a form based on the unfurling fern frond that represents new life.

Koru criticism

The use of Māori motifs on clothing has not been without criticism. In 2010 Māori academic Rawiri Taonui spoke out against fashion designer Trelise Cooper’s apparent lack of respect for the symbol in her ‘busy and inelegant’ new uniforms for Air New Zealand.1 The design was altered but still retained koru motifs.

Pacific clothing influences have also been apparent. Since the 1970s Pākehā New Zealanders have sometimes worn colourful Samoan ie lavalava (a wrap-around length of printed fabric) to the beach.

In the 20th century distinctive national and ethnic clothing was usually only worn for special occasions, such as weddings and funerals, and national and religious days. With the dramatic increase in ethnic diversity in New Zealand a greater variety of everyday clothing today is non-European.

Class distinctions

Colonists dressed differently depending on their class. An 1849 handbook for intending immigrants emphasised plain, hard-wearing flannel, cotton, worsted and fustian garments for labouring men. Gentlemen, on the other hand, were advised to bring 72 dress shirts and 40 waistcoats.

No dandies in the bush

Colonists such as Edward Jerningham Wakefield discovered that a ‘dandified appearance’ was of little practical value in the bush. New arrivals looked ‘with evident contempt at my rough red woollen smock, belted over a coarse check shirt, without neck-cloth, and stout duck trousers, and gaping with horror at my long hair, unshaven beard, and short black pipe, half-hidden under a broad-brimmed and rather dirty Manilla hat.’2

Women who dressed above or beneath their station according to old-world values were treated with either tolerance or disapproval, depending on the observer’s attitude. The cleanliness or dirtiness of clothing was also commented upon. Tensions could occur in relations between servants and mistresses over matters of dress.

Into the 20th century class differences continued to be apparent in clothing. People were categorised as ‘vulgar’ or ‘cultured’ on the basis of personal appearance. Well-off people could have bespoke clothing made for them by dressmakers and tailors.

People in more modest circumstances made their own clothes. Those living in poverty needed to find ways to make ends meet, particularly when unemployment rates were high. Sewing skills were crucial. The charitable and commercial trade in second-hand clothing was significant. Unwanted clothing and textiles were circulated within families and communities.

Other identities

Group identities could be signalled through clothing choices.

Gays and lesbians

In the era when sex between men was illegal, homosexual men wore clothing that was only subtly different to that of their heterosexual counterparts, but that still allowed them to recognise one another. Some were meticulous in their attention to clothing; others demonstrated a flair for colour or style. Hairstyles, such as a peak at the nape of the neck, and jewellery, such as pinkie rings, could signal belonging. Homosexual law reform in 1986 allowed gay men to display their sexuality more openly – some chose to do this by dressing flamboyantly.

Lesbians also signalled their sexual identity through appearance, with a number choosing short, spiky haircuts, trousers and flat shoes. Some activist lesbians wore T-shirts or badges with lesbian slogans. From the 1990s ‘lipstick lesbians’ donned more traditionally feminine clothing.


Religious beliefs have been signalled overtly or covertly using clothing. Special forms of clothing are an aspect of religious ritual, not just for the church hierarchy, but also for parishioners in some churches. Girls taking their first communion in the Catholic church wear a white confirmation dress with a veil. Salvation Army officers wear military-style uniforms and caps. Members of Masonic and other lodges sometimes sport elaborate regalia.


People of different ages often wear different styles of clothing. Fashion tends to be youth-oriented, and accordingly, older men and women wear styles that are familiar to them. Perhaps as a result of increased longevity, though, there are individuals who are challenging this prescription.

  1. ‘Air New Zealand’s new uniforms “disrespect Maori”.’ (last accessed 2 April 2013). Back
  2. E. Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1955, pp. 233–234 (originally published 1845). Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona McKergow, 'Clothes - Clothing and identity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Fiona McKergow, published 5 Sep 2013