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.
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.
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.