Original New Zealand fashion design was one of the more unlikely consequences of the Second World War. Before the war, those who wanted to dress fashionably relied on independent and department-store dressmakers or their own sewing skills, but designs were largely imported from overseas. Original New Zealand designs were rare, and ideas were derived from the fashions of Europe.
Impact of war
The Second World War disrupted the usual flow of goods and information into New Zealand. News of the latest fashions coming out of Paris was curtailed, and clothes rationing limited sartorial options. The absence of international fashion provided entrepreneurial local dressmakers and shop proprietors with a gap to fill. American servicemen stationed in New Zealand were happy to spend money on locally designed fashion for their New Zealand girlfriends.
Pioneering fashion designers
Three Auckland fashion houses are credited as the founders of fashion design in New Zealand: Trilby Yates, Ninette Gowns and Bobby Angus. All offered custom-made garments from inner-city salons, and produced flowing evening gowns, tailored suits, smart day dresses and long coats.
Trilby Yates, founded by sisters Trilby and Julia Yates, started life as a hat shop in the 1920s and developed into a dress shop in the early 1930s after Trilby Yates’s untimely death. Julia Yates was an expert saleswoman rather than a designer, so she hired Nancy Hudson to fill this role. Business boomed during the early 1940s as American servicemen spent up on original garments for their girlfriends. Hall Ludlow, who became a leading fashion designer in Australia, got his start at Trilby Yates in 1945. The label closed in the early 1950s.
A new career
The origins of brothels were inevitably mysterious in the days when prostitution was illegal. According to one story, Flora MacKenzie held regular parties at the Ninette Gowns salon, and cottoned on to the idea of becoming a madam after American servicemen left her parties with house models, first depositing a wad of cash under a vase.
Flora MacKenzie is best remembered as a celebrated brothel madam, but before this she was a fashion designer and owned the label Ninette Gowns. She offered a very exclusive, bespoke service which was patronised by the elite. MacKenzie’s gowns were distinguished by hand embroidery and appliqué, and she was particularly interested in Chinese motifs.
As with Trilby Yates, American servicemen were important clients, and they also prompted MacKenzie’s entry into the world of brothel-keeping. Her wealthy father purchased a block of flats for her in Ponsonby during the war, and once she realised her female tenants were entertaining the visiting Americans, she became their madam and eventually left the world of fashion.
Bobby Angus opened a shop in Auckland in 1948 and made a diverse array of garments. Her clothes were smart, though more casual than those of Trilby Yates and Ninette Gowns, and she catered for a younger clientele of professional women.
Artist Frances Hodgkins embarked on a brief career designing textiles in England in 1925–26. She attended the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (a public exhibition) in Paris in 1925 on behalf of her employer, the Calico Printers Association of Manchester, and was wowed by the innovative new textiles on show. Commercial textile design soon palled though, and Hodgkins resumed teaching art classes in 1926.
Artists May Smith, Blanche Wormald and Louise Tilsley produced hand-printed textiles in the 1930s and 1940s. Writer A. R. D. Fairburn took up textile design and printing in 1947 and, along with other designers, produced refreshing, modern textiles that were an alternative to the traditional florals on offer in stores. Avis Higgs began her successful textile design career, which largely took place overseas, in Sydney in 1941.