The fashion designers of the 1940s prepared the ground for their successors and proved that designers could make a career in New Zealand. Male fashion designers became more common in the 1950s. Garments were often made to measure – based on a pattern but made to fit the individual wearer. Evening and day wear and tailored suits remained mainstays. In the 1960s hemlines started to shoot up. Auckland was the centre of fashion in New Zealand.
Competitions and parades
In 1950 a fashion competition was held at Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret, with the aim of proving that New Zealand fashion design was as good as overseas design. The winner, Marie Little, faded from view after the competition, but the event did signal a new confidence.
The first Gown of the Year contest in 1958 left watchers awed: ‘Nine fabulous ball gowns, gleaming satin encrusted with crystals and pearls, softly swathed chiffon, rich velvet and sweeping trains of glittering tulle, brought sighs of admiration and wonder from the audience.’1
Evening gown competitions and parades were important fashion events in the 1950s and presaged the high-profile Gown of the Year contest, which ran from 1958 to 1964. The gowns shown at these events tended to be ‘princess’-style gowns, heavy on fabric and embellishment. Another key fashion event was the Wool Board Awards (1960–65). The Benson & Hedges Fashion Design awards started in 1964 and ran until the mid-1990s.
Designers of the 1950s
In the late 1940s Emma Knuckey made the transition from Taranaki homemaker to fashion designer. In a remarkable display of confidence, Knuckey sent her fashion sketches to the London Model House Group, an association of British ready-to-wear designers, and she was invited to study there in 1949. On her return in 1950 she opened a salon in Auckland, and became one of the country’s leading fashion designers. Knuckey was best known for her women’s two-piece suits.
The royal tour of 1953–54 was a good time for New Zealand fashion designers. Many women, some of whom attended tour-related events, refreshed their wardrobes and bought new garments from designers. Queen Elizabeth wore her coronation gown with its 20,000 hand-sewn pearls to the opening of Parliament in 1954. Her elaborate dress inspired imitation by a generation of designers and home sewers.
Bruce Papas was trained by Flora MacKenzie and was the lead designer at Ninette Gowns in its later years. He briefly ran his own salon before becoming the designer for the Milne & Choyce department store in Auckland. There he was responsible for introducing the chemise or sack dress to New Zealand in the late 1950s. It was a radical departure from the more structured garments of previous decades and heralded a loosening of social conventions as well as waistlines. It also identified a new market – youth.
Auckland’s Barry McDonnell eschewed the salon approach, which required numerous appointments, and made ready-to-wear garments that didn’t stay on the racks for long.
Designers of the 1960s
Barbara Penberthy established Contessa in 1956, but is best known for her second label, Babs Radon, which started in 1961. Colin Cole designed for apparel firm Classic Manufacturing. He started his own eponymous label in 1958 and went on to become one of the leading designers of the 1960s, known for his evening dresses. Gus Fisher of El Jay emerged in the 1950s and became well established in the following decade. Former model Joan Talbot’s Tarantella was another successful label. All these labels were Auckland-based.
These designers catered for the well-heeled woman and did not appeal to teenage baby-boomers who were ready to shake loose and reject the social conventions followed by their parents. Diana Colmore-Williams designed one-off garments – short shift dresses, trouser suits and beach wear – for a younger market.
Granny’s, Bizarre and His Lordship’s (which catered for men) were other fashionable labels aimed at young people.
From the 1950s New Zealand designers and apparel manufacturers held licences to produce garments under major international fashion labels. El Jay held the Christian Dior licence. This practice came to an end in the 1980s.
William Mason’s first textiles appeared in the late 1940s, when he was an arts student, but it was not until the 1960s that he made his mark as a textile designer. Mason designed wallpaper and fabric for interior furnishings. Frank and Carla Carpay produced bold designs for beachwear fabric.