When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand they found that the paper mulberry tree (aute), from which they would have made tapa cloth, was difficult to grow in the cooler climate. Instead, they scraped flax and cabbage-tree leaves and made them into skirts and cloaks, which often also included bird feathers and kurī (dog) hair. Māori in some areas used bone needles to sew together animal skins, including those of dogs, seals and weka.
Clothing was hard to get in early colonial New Zealand. Colonists were advised to bring plentiful supplies. The 1849 Hand-book for intending emigrants to the southern settlements of New Zealand advised bachelor cabin passengers to bring 48 shirts, 18 waistcoats and 60 pairs of socks as well as numerous jackets, trousers and blouses for summer wear. It suggested emigrants ask friends for their half-worn clothes, as these would be good enough for the colonies.
From the 1850s general stores sold basic, ready-to-wear clothing. Draperies stocked fabric and haberdashery for home sewing as well as some clothes. Suits, dresses and hats were usually made for individual customers by dressmakers and tailors.
Made-to-measure clothing generated a lot of employment. In 1880 there were some 4,000 self-employed tailors and seamstresses in New Zealand. In 1901 about one-quarter of women in business were dressmakers or tailoresses.
Madame de Luen’s customer
A Manawatū farmer’s wife, Emily Mildon, left an account of her clothes shopping, by keeping all of her receipts. She bought some clothes at Palmerston North’s most upmarket department store, C. M. Ross, but she also had garments made at Madame de Luen – the business of dressmaker Elizabeth de Luen, whose husband Arthur had a tailor’s shop nearby.
One town’s clothing trade
In 1893, Palmerston North – a town of about 4,500 people – had 100 people working in clothing businesses. Among the men were 21 tailors, 21 drapers, 15 general storekeepers, a clothier, a hatter, a hosiery manufacturer and a maker of braids and decorations for military uniforms. There were 57 women in the industry – 41 dressmakers and tailoresses, seven milliners (making women’s hats), five storekeepers–drapers, two machinists (one working for a tailor), a seamstress and a corsetmaker.
Drapery, mainly clothing and fabric for making clothes, was New Zealand’s biggest import in the late 19th century. In 1880 the country spent almost as much on drapery and clothing as it earned from gold exports. There were large importing firms, such as Wellington’s Levin & Co., established in 1852, and Bing Harris & Co., from 1853 – but many storekeepers imported their own supplies.
Tailor-made, ready-made or home-made
By the early 20th century, men’s clothes were mainly bought off-the-rack from shops stocking factory-made rather than tailor-made clothes.
Women usually made their own clothes, and their children’s. Draperies and department stores sold material and paper patterns. Home sewing became easier with the availability of sewing machines and the simpler fashion styles of the 20th century. Department stores sold ready-made women’s clothes and had dressmaking services, and individual dressmakers stayed in business, mainly catering to wealthier clients.