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Rural clothing

by  Bronwyn Labrum

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.


Rough conditions

In the early days of European settlement, the first roads were often muddy tracks among long ferns and flax. Women, more then men, had to modify their clothes to protect them from mud and water. They attached removable and washable braids or bands on skirt hems, and inserted sturdy back portions into their skirts. Women also used a device like a walking stick with a clasp on one end, to hold up their hems and keep them out of harm’s way.

Isolation and improvisation

New arrivals had to rely on supplies of clothing from Britain, as there was little local industry and labour. Taranaki surveyor Edwin Harris and his family escaped with only their lives when fire destroyed their raupō whare (bulrush hut) in the winter of 1841. Harris’s wife gathered up the burnt articles, making cloth shoes that the children wore until new clothes arrived from England, a year later.

Settlers wrote to relatives and friends in Britain begging for clothing. Rural women often had to alter and repair clothing for themselves and their children, and wear unfashionable garments.

Land girls

During the Second World War, women known as land girls worked on many farms as part of the war effort. They were supplied with a very smart dress uniform and a working kit, consisting of a pair of boots, a sou’wester hat, a working hat, a leather jacket, a pair of leggings, three pairs of overalls, three shirts, a riding raincoat and a pair of gumboots.

Propriety and respectability

Some women continued to wear stays and crinolines, in the hope of keeping up appearances and standards of behaviour. Some women no longer wore riding habits. Lady Mary Anne Barker, who lived on a Canterbury sheep station in the 1860s, advised emigrants against bringing thin cotton muslin, but urged thick boots with nails or screws in the soles for walking in the hills. She noted that hats were difficult because of the wind.

The lack of refined manners attracted criticism. Colonial woman Margaret Herring wrote to her sister despairing of the ‘habits of “bush it-will-do-ish-ness”’ 1 of wealthy Upper Hutt friends. Working women on the goldfields were described as caring little for their appearance and looking sunburned, crass, slovenly and masculine.

There was also disapproval of clothing that was too bright. Mary Homeyer, who arrived in Otago in 1849, disliked the outfits that working men wore. She described ‘the colonial costume’ of cotton, corduroy, and blue flannel as ‘a most unbecoming dress’. 2

Snobbish attitudes were for those who could afford them. For many years people in isolated areas who wanted to buy clothes had to rely on pedlars arriving on a packhorse. Many bought clothing through mail order catalogues. Poorer people often made clothes out of white cotton flour bags, potato and sugar bags, especially during depressions. Hand-me-down clothing was the norm for children. In the late 1800s, rural women’s clothing became more practical – simple cotton dresses and skirts.

  1. Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds, My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p.170. › Back
  2. Quoted in Jeanine Graham, ‘Settler society.’ In The Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by Geoffrey W. Rice. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.122. › Back


For settlers fresh off the boat in the 1840s there was little variation in dress. Men arrived wearing their immigrant clothes – moleskin trousers, a blue jumper and a floppy cheese-cutter cap or billycock hat made of felt. All clothes had to be imported before tailors got established.

Rural occupations

New Zealand’s climate was more temperate than Britain’s, so the British smock and the shepherd’s plaid fell out of use. The overalls that British and American farmers wore became the garb of tradesmen instead. The colonial blue shirt was gradually replaced by the coloured checked shirt, worn by both the elite and the working classes: outdoor workers, gold miners, farmhands, station owners, and bush-fellers alike. Others wore Crimean shirts made of grey wool, which had a simple neckband instead of a collar and were pulled over the head. Diggers on the goldfields wore them outside their trousers.

On the sheep station

In the mid-19th century, men working on sheep stations only left the farm once or twice a year. They required functional, warm and inexpensive garments.

Station hands

Station hands usually wore:

  • a woollen Crimean shirt with a collar
  • moleskin, woollen or corduroy trousers, with belt and knife sheath
  • a waistcoat and a blue serge shirt with the tails cut short (in place of a coat)
  • worsted socks
  • strong, heavily nailed, watertight boots
  • a felt hat
  • sometimes a tie
  • knee breeches and boots for riding.

Clothing was often patched and re-patched beyond recognition. For Sunday best, men wore a dark coat, a white collarless shirt and a necktie run through a ring carved from a sheep shank or a quandong nut (the hard stone of an Australian fruit). Beards were worn very long; hair and beards were trimmed with sheep shears.


Shearers came from a wider range of backgrounds and countries – many were from Australia. They wore ‘a motley variety of clothes often of a high quality’. 1 They frequently arrived with pants and boots, paper collar and smart necktie. Over time their standard working outfit became a flannel or woollen singlet, woollen tweed trousers, bowyangs (straps around the knees which held up trouser legs) and moccasins made of sacking. Shearers and other itinerant farm workers who walked from job to job were known as swaggers.

The Shiner

Most swaggers were very poor, and after 1900 most were elderly. Ned Slattery, known as The Shiner, is remembered for the great care he took with his gentlemanly appearance. He wore ‘a battered and holed straw boater tied to his lapel with a bootlace, a starched or celluloid collar around his neck, a dark tie faded green by the sun, a waistcoat, shrunken dark trousers, carefully fitted boots, and he carried a cane or an umbrella (or at least the handle thereof) under his arm’. 2

Trousers and shorts

Photos of farm workers up till the 1960s reveal the standard dress to be a woollen sports coat, woollen trousers, often a woollen waistcoat and woollen shirt and a felt hat. For decades, men wore woollen trousers. Shorts were almost unheard of in the late 1800s and early 1900s – they were seen as a sign of poverty, meaning the wearer could not afford to buy trousers. It was only in the 1960s that shorts became more widely worn by rural men.

New materials and products

From the 1990s many farmers adopted new synthetic materials commonly used by trampers, such as polar fleece, polypropylene and Gore-tex. These are lightweight and quick-drying, compared with traditional woollen garments. Farmers working in dairy sheds or wet conditions can purchase specially designed, hard-wearing jackets, trousers and bib trousers. Much clothing is still bought from stores in rural towns.

  1. John E. Martin, The forgotten worker: the rural wage earner in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Trade Union History Project, 1990, p.157. › Back
  2. John E. Martin. ‘Slattery, Edmond 1839/1840?–1927.’ Dictionary of New Zealand biography, Updated 22 June 2007, last accessed 28 July 2008. › Back

Hats, footwear and oilskins

Hats and gloves

Until the 1950s, both men and women wore hats when they went out socially, in rural areas or in cities. Hats came in various designs and materials – some were even woven from cabbage tree leaves. The sou’wester is a waterproof hat with a broad flap to cover the neck. Thick woollen hats or balaclavas are essential winter wear for farmers, especially in inland areas of the South Island.

Many rural men still have a well-weathered hat, often for both work and leisure – worn not just for appearance, but also to keep off the sun. Hats, especially broad-brimmed ones, are enjoying a revival in the 2000s as people become conscious of the health risks of too much exposure to the sun.

Woollen fingerless gloves are also worn in very cold conditions – they expose the fingers from the first knuckle, so work can still be easily carried out.


Early rural workers wore leather boots, often with hobnails in the sole. It was soon acceptable for children to avoid blisters and chafing from wet and muddy boots by going barefoot, except at church and on other special occasions.


Rubber gumboots were first produced in New Zealand in the 1940s. They rapidly became popular, especially in rural areas – red-band gumboots, lace-up gumboots and white freezing-works gumboots are all associated with rural occupations. The rural town of Taihape has a large corrugated-iron gumboot sculpture, calls itself the gumboot capital of the world, and holds an annual gumboot-throwing competition. In the 1970s satirist John Clarke wrote some new lyrics for a folk song about gumboots, and performed it in the guise of his farmer character Fred Dagg.


Oilskin is cotton cloth impregnated with oil, making it impermeable to water. The material is made into brimmed hats, jackets and leggings. Before plastics and other impermeable synthetic materials were developed, oilskin was the main waterproof material used to make raincoats and leggings. The oilskin parka exuded the scent of the oils and waxes used to waterproof it – a smell that many associate with the outdoors. Oilskins were not completely waterproof, and exposure to heavy rain would soon see the checked flannel lining gently steaming.

The long oilskin coat with a split at the back was developed as a method of keeping dry, especially on horseback. It has become something of a fashion item, especially after the Speight’s ‘Southern Man’ beer advertising campaign of the 1990s, which featured taciturn musterers in the mountains clad in oilskins.

Black singlets and bush shirts

History of the singlet

In the 1890s, renowned Australian shearer Jacky Howe tore out the restrictive sleeves of his undershirt, creating a new garment – the singlet – that became known as the ‘Jacky Howe’ in Australia and New Zealand.

After the First World War, it became common for working men and athletes to wear navy blue or black singlets – the dark colours hid the grime. By the 1940s and 1950s black dominated. The singlet now had a deeply scooped neck with looser armholes, and had been adopted for a broad range of manual occupations and pursuits. Singlets were worn by shearers, farmers, hunters, trampers, labourers, railway workers, truck drivers, freezing workers, forestry workers, miners and fishermen.

Singlet satire

In 1973 comedian John Clarke created an instantly recognisable outfit for his satirical television farmer character Fred Dagg – a crumpled hat, black singlet, ripped shorts and gumboots. The cartoon characters Wal Footrot, a farmer, and Bogor, a bushman, also wore black singlets and offered distinctive and humorous takes on the rural world.

The black singlet

The classic singlet comes almost to the knee and is made of coarse heavy wool. Its durability and ability to keep the lower back warm after a day of hard manual labour made it ideal for shearers, who suffered back trouble.

New hygiene regulations were introduced into the slaughter industries by the early 1970s, to meet the higher standards required by American and British markets. Black singlets were replaced with standard-issue white singlets, shirts, trousers, aprons and hats. The influence of American sportswear and underwear on the New Zealand market encouraged many shearers to wear lighter wool and cotton versions, which also came in other colours.

Despite these changes, the black singlet was an instantly understood shorthand for the archetypal ‘Kiwi bloke’ – a strong, independent, no-nonsense, hard-working man.

Swanndri fever

The team who developed the exhibition ‘On the Sheep’s Back’ at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa launched a nationwide competition inviting people to send in stories about Swanndris. The winners were displayed along with the garments – often well-worn, stained and faded. Staff were amazed at the huge response and the number of people who referred to their bush shirts as ‘Old Faithful’.

The bush shirt or Swanndri

In 1913 William Broome, an English emigrant living in Taranaki, registered a trademark for the Swanndri, a woollen work shirt with short sleeves and a laced front. His innovation was to immerse sewn garments in a secret formula to make them weatherproof. The shirts shrank unevenly, so they were marketed as ‘one size fits all’. The distinctive trademark was a swan in a circle with the name below – a combination of the words swan and dry.


John McKendrick, who ran a New Plymouth clothing factory under the name of John Mack Limited, bought the Swanndri trademark and business in 1937 and added a hood and long sleeves to the shirts. He also introduced pre-shrunk fabrics and did away with the chemical process – so Swanndris could be made in different sizes. By the 1950s, the range included jackets with front zips, available in khaki and in three different tartans. The garments were later also known as ‘Dri Coat’ jackets. They had flannel lining for warmth, and came in a wide range of checks and plain shades.

Into the 2000s

Alliance Textiles of Timaru bought the Swanndri trademark in 1975, and in 2004 Swanndri New Zealand purchased the brand. The new company sells more than 70 styles for men and women and has diversified into urban and tourist markets, including a summer-weight version of the wool fabric. The most popular style remains the long bush shirt called ‘The Original’. Around 3,000 are sold each year, and the most popular colour is olive, followed by blue-and-black and red-and-black checks. In 2005 Swanndri went into partnership with fashion designer Karen Walker. The Swanndri by Karen Walker range included luggage and outdoor clothing such as trench coats, jackets, T-shirts and scarves.

Rural fashion

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.

Contemporary trends

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).

  1. Emma Dewson, ‘“Off to the dance”: romance in rural New Zealand communities, 1880s–1920s.’ History Australia 2, no.1 (2004), p. 05–6. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Bronwyn Labrum, 'Rural clothing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2024)

Story by Bronwyn Labrum, published 24 November 2008