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by Fiona McKergow

In the late 19th century feminists argued that women should abandon corsets and long skirts in favour of more practical, comfortable clothing. In the 2000s informal dress was common, with everyone sporting jeans and T-shirts.

Women’s clothes

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.

    • 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
    • New Zealand Graphic, 15 July 1893, p. 663. Back

Men’s clothes

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.

    • Charlotte Godley, Letters from early New Zealand: 1850–1853. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1951, p. 57. Back
    • Auckland Star, 11 January 1935, p. 5. Back
    • Janet Frame, An autobiography. Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1989, p. 139. Back

Children’s clothes

New Zealand children are said to have dressed with more freedom and informality than their British counterparts, a characteristic shared with Australian children. Children often went barefoot, regardless of their parents’ financial status. Despite such steps towards the loosening of old-world conventions, not all children dressed alike – what they wore was influenced by their gender, age, social class, ethnicity, locality and upbringing. Children had little choice in what they wore, especially if resources were limited.


Many of the key milestones of childhood involve steps towards wearing adult styles of clothing. Set practices, such as breeching boys at the end of infancy (when they began wearing trousers instead of gowns) and putting girls’ hair up at the end of adolescence, once signalled increasing maturity. In the 20th century, as childhood became more prolonged, such clearly defined stages were not so evident.

19th century

Colonial children’s garments became increasingly gendered as they aged. Male and female babies were dressed in the same manner. Many layers of garments were used to provide warmth, including underclothing, gowns, shawls and caps. As the century progressed, robes became shorter, reaching to just below the feet. Long robes were only retained for christenings. Boys moved into knickerbocker suits, and girls continued to wear dresses, which by the late 19th century were often yoked and frilled, with a washable cotton pinafore over the top for cleanliness.

Labour of love

Keeping up children’s appearances was a significant amount of work for mothers. It was one of the ways in which ‘motherhood’ was on display. A Plunket nurse noted in 1912 that ‘mothers make themselves extra work by putting white starched gowns on the baby instead of just making a plain silk gown which can be washed and done up at a moment’s notice, making the baby look just as nice.’1

20th century

New forms of playwear, such as romper suits (a loose-fitting one-piece garment with buttoned or elasticised pants) were available for young children in the early 20th century. Many variations on playwear developed. Staple items for boys through the mid-20th century were shorts and shirts. Girls wore dresses, or shorts or rompers with blouses. Jumpsuits were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, signalling a wider social acceptance of girls in pants, followed by denim dungarees in the 1980s and 1990s.


The popularity of homemade knitwear was a significant development in children’s clothing in the 20th century. Jerseys and cardigans became widespread forms of children’s wear, until they were superseded by sweatshirts in the late 20th century.

Knitted fabrics were more widely used after the Second World War, and in the 2000s there were very few children’s garments for which these were not used. Most casual children’s wear – hoodies, T-shirts, track pants, tunic dresses, skirts and leggings – was made from cotton and polyester knits.

Significantly less clothing was made for children at home. Gendering of children’s clothing had become less consistent. Boys’ and girls’ clothing could range from unisex to unashamedly gendered styles, with pink predominating in the wardrobes of many young girls.

Peer pressure

A Polish immigrant who arrived in New Zealand as a child after the Second World War recalled: ‘On the first day, I wore leather pantlets that German children [often] wear. They are very sensible gear as they are almost indestructible. You can even slide round rocks in them. They were ornately patterned. I wore these pantlets to school and all the children laughed at me. I couldn’t understand it. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I think I got New Zealand pants pretty quickly.’2

Formal clothes

Dressing up for formal occasions, such as weddings, has been a long-standing feature of childhood. At these events children’s clothing was more likely to resemble adult clothing. It was newer, fancier, cleaner, and, if not starched, then more crisply pressed than everyday clothing. Special accessories, including jewellery, were often worn or held. Wearing ‘Sunday best’ was a weekly routine for children of church-going parents.

Dressing up

Fancy-dress balls were a prevalent feature of childhood from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. These began as fundraisers for such causes as children’s hospital wards, or for special occasions such as the Queen’s Birthday. In the late 19th century children’s costume choices came largely from European art, history, literature and popular culture. Military and humanitarian archetypes such as ‘rough rider’ and ‘Red Cross nurse’, and racial stereotypes such as African Americans or ‘Māori maidens’, became common in the early 20th century.

For many decades through the mid-20th century games of cowboys and Indians were common. They derived from a long tradition of the Wild West as popular entertainment. Cowgirls also dressed for a part in the skirmishes that eventuated.

In the 2000s dressing up in character continued to be popular, particularly for birthday parties and school fun days. Mass-market dressing-up costumes, such as Superman and Disney Princess outfits, co-existed with creations inspired by wearable art and arts recycling movements.

    • Northern Advocate, 15 November 1912, p. 3. Back
    • Quoted in Ann Beaglehole, Facing the past: looking back at refugee childhood in New Zealand, 1940s–1960s. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990, pp. 60–61. Back


School uniforms

The purpose of a uniform is to convey its wearer’s identity. State schools in New Zealand have followed British precedent by wearing uniforms at secondary level, although not usually at primary level, where students have largely worn everyday clothing.

Compulsory primary education was introduced in 1877. Young girls often wore white cotton pinafores to keep their clothes clean, while young boys wore shirts, jackets and short trousers, with sailor suits a popular choice. Older pupils tended to wear cut-down versions of adult clothing. Uniforms were introduced in the 20th century.


Truancy from school owing to a lack of suitable clothing was a matter for public concern in the 19th century. In 1895 the Timaru Herald reported: ‘It is miserable enough for people to be poor without having the fact announced publicly in the papers, or their children being subjected to tormenting in school and out of it by more fortunate scholars for torn or patched garments, for broken boots or for none at all.’1


From the First World War gym frocks were worn as girls’ sports and school uniforms. They were either made at home from navy serge or purchased ready-made in a range of sizes. Worn over shirts, with a tie and bloomers, by the late 1920s they had replaced the earlier straw boater, short tie, long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt.

Gym frocks were superseded in the 1960s, when a greater diversity in girls’ school uniforms became evident. Summer uniforms had been introduced in the 1940s. The kilt became a common choice, as did simple zip-fastened tunics.


Boys’ school uniforms have not changed as much as girls’ uniforms. They have typically consisted of a pale, often grey, collared shirt with a breast pocket, worn with or without a tie, and short trousers, knee socks and shoes or boots, all in dark colours.


Conflict between self-expression and discipline has been a long-standing issue with school uniforms. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s hair length for boys, which became a full-blown legal battle in 1974, and skirt lengths for girls provoked considerable debate. Schools in the 2000s had a legal right to reasonable governing of appearance.

Contemporary school attire

In the 2000s brighter colours were a feature of both boys’ and girls’ uniforms, and they had become more unisex, with the introduction of trousers for girls and matching knit tops. Some secondary schools had adopted a policy of no uniform, while a small number of primary schools had introduced uniforms.

Occupational uniforms

Occupational uniforms have proliferated since the late 19th century. Nurses’ uniforms have been the most visible and prevalent uniforms worn by women. During wartime military uniforms were the most common and visible uniform for men. Both types of uniform have varied considerably in style.


Crisp white cotton fabric has long been associated with hygiene in hospital settings. In the early 20th century ‘washing dresses’, white aprons and removable sleeves represented cleanliness and neatness.

White starched veils or caps, neatly fitted dresses, stockings and leather shoes with low heels were standard fare for mid-20th century public-hospital nurses. Rank was indicated in a variety of ways that were derived from military dress. In the 2000s white polycotton tunic tops were widely worn with regulation skirts, trousers, three-quarter-length pants or knee-length shorts. Nurses no longer wore caps on their ward rounds.

Armed forces

Red serge jackets were the distinguishing feature of 19th-century imperial troops, and were worn with long trousers in a contrasting colour, such as blue, black or white. Following British precedent, khaki service dress was instituted in 1912.

‘Lemon-squeezer’ hats and fern-leaf badges distinguished New Zealand servicemen during the First World War. Battle dress, adopted in 1937, was designed to accommodate new forms of weaponry and ammunition.

Innovations were made to suit combat conditions. Camouflage gear was improvised in the Pacific during the Second World War and officially introduced in 1977. During the Vietnam War servicemen wore ‘denims’: shorts and socks over boots, with a soft jungle hat with a brim, and no shirts or underpants.

In the 2000s field, combat and fatigue dress was still made from camouflage-pattern material. For ceremonial occasions, the lemon-squeezer and red-and-black mokowaewae (shoulder sash) were worn.

    • Timaru Herald, 30 May 1895, p. 3. Back

Clothing and identity

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.

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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Fiona McKergow, 'Clothes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Fiona McKergow, published 5 September 2013