Story: Rural clothing

Some items of farm clothing have become enduring symbols of New Zealand culture and identity. The black singlet and the woollen Swanndri have featured on postage stamps, in cartoons and artwork, and at the national museum, Te Papa. These garments are worn today by women as well as men, in urban areas as well as the rural heartland.

Story by Bronwyn Labrum
Main image: ‘The black singlet’, by Nigel Brown

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Early days

New Zealand’s first roads were muddy tracks among wet plants. Women carried sticks to hold up their long skirts, so they wouldn’t be ruined by water and mud.

Most settlers had to wait for clothes to be sent from Britain. Women altered and repaired old garments for their families. Poorer people often made clothes from bags that had held flour, potatoes or sugar.

Men working on sheep stations left the farm only once or twice a year. They needed clothing that was practical, warm and not expensive. Clothes were often patched and patched again. Men on farms cut their hair and beards with sheep shears.

Hats

Up to the 1950s, people wore hats when they went out. Today, many farmers still wear hats, for warmth in the winter and to keep the sun off in summer.

Footwear

Workers wore leather boots with hobnails in the sole. Children often went barefoot. From the 1940s, rubber gumboots became very popular with rural workers. The rural town of Taihape calls itself the world’s gumboot capital, and has a gumboot-throwing contest each year.

Oilskins

Oilskin is cotton cloth made waterproof with oil. It is made into hats, coats and leggings to wear in the rain.

Singlets

The first singlet belonged to Australian shearer Jacky Howe, who tore off the sleeves of his undershirt. Many rural people – including shearers, farmers, hunters and freezing workers – wear singlets, and farmers are traditionally known for their black woollen singlets.

Swanndri

A Taranaki tailor invented the Swanndri – a woollen work shirt soaked in a secret formula to make it waterproof. Swanndris, also called bush shirts, became very popular with farmers, hunters and trampers.

Fashion

From the early days, country people enjoyed dressing up to go to dances, or into town. At dances, women wore special dresses – often home-made, or made from an older dress. Some rural garments like the Swanndri have also become fashionable with city people.

Rural clothing today

Since the 1990s, farmers often wear clothes made from modern, lightweight fabrics like polar fleece and Gore-tex.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Labrum, 'Rural clothing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rural-clothing (accessed 16 December 2018)

Story by Bronwyn Labrum, published 24 Nov 2008