Going to the dance
From colonial times until the 1960s, local dances in town and country areas were opportunities for women to signal their adulthood, and perhaps find romance. Wearing their hair up and a special dress marked the event. For rural women a dance at the local hall was one of their few chances to dress up.
While dresses might be home-made and refashioned from older dresses, they were often elaborate if the family was well off. South Canterbury woman Elsie Clogstoun, who came from a wealthy sheep-farming family, recorded in her diary in the early 1880s: ‘My dress was cream coloured serge, trimmed with creamy lace & a puckered creamy satin plastron. It is a very pretty dress … I had dark red & silver fan, & buttoned creamy kid gloves & Tasmanian iridescent shells round my neck.’ 1
Going to town
Trips into town for shopping, or to attend church or A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows, also gave rural people the chance to dress up. For instance, checked sports coats were popular with men in Otago and Canterbury from the 1950s.
Better roads and greater use of cars broke down the traditional divide between town and country. In the late 20th century, clothing generally became more relaxed and casual. Dressing up to go to town was no longer such a big deal, although some styles, such as hats and scarves for women, persisted in country areas – especially in the South Island. Rural dress further north in the country tended to be less formal.
Escaping the rat race
In the late 1960s hippies appeared in New Zealand. Some moved to rural areas, where their hair and clothing were quite different to those of locals. Some didn’t wear anything, but most recycled older gear. As well as slogan-emblazoned T-shirts and jeans, they wore second-hand suit jackets, well-worn pullovers and army surplus shirts, with sandals or jandals.
In the 1980s and 1990s there was almost a uniform for rural South Island teenagers. Brown leather boots, moleskin trousers and an Aertex cotton shirt – often pink-and-white or blue-and-white – were topped with a natural-spun brown woollen jersey. The shirt collars were often worn sticking upwards. This style was common among boarding-school and university students, both male and female. It became fashionable and was copied by many urban young people.
At rural show days, women often wore a calf-length denim skirt, pearls and fob chains. For both men and women brushed cotton shirts, moleskins and an old beaten hat are still very common.
Rural clothing as fashion
Karen Walker’s take on the Swanndri is just one example of a wider trend of rural clothing as branded fashion item, which includes other garments such as oilskins and moleskins. Many clothing brands such as MacKenzie Country, Norsewear, Icebreaker and Swazi also market themselves using rural imagery.
The Ag Art Awards have been held since 1994 at New Zealand’s largest farm demonstration event, the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek. These rural wearable art awards feature outfits created from things found around the farm (for example possum-fur nipple warmers).