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The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940

When Mark Twain jestingly said, “Clothes maketh the man. Naked people have no influence on society,” he would have given equal scoff to the notion that fashion would one day become one of the world’s largest industries, generating hundreds of billions in annual profits.

As if to rebuke Twain’s mockery, the handsome volume The Dress Circle makes a sober and detailed exploration of the New Zealand fashion industry from the 1940s to today. Due in part to the effect of societal and economic shifts on industry and on how we dress, and also to the diligence of the authors in recording and depicting what seems like every fashion-related development of significance, The Dress Circle is also a remarkable record of our social history.

The book is the result of collaboration between Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, the director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery and a renowned commentator on design history, fashion and textiles expert Claire Regnault, who works at Te Papa, and Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery curator Lucy Hammonds.

Each decade has its own chapter, which explores the particular trends and larger social events that influenced the fashion of the time. The 1940s, dominated by war and its aftermath, are the chosen starting point, it’s explained, because that is the earliest period from which New Zealand fashion can be reliably documented.

Later, the fashion landscape was revolutionized by Conde Nast’s launch of Vogue New Zealand in 1957; in the 1970s, the industry was given a welcome boost by the assistance to garment manufacturers by the Muldoon government, expanding markets and increasing manufacturing capabilities; the zeitgeist-dominating 80s TV show Gloss, with its Liz Mitchell-designed costumes; the growth of fashion journalism in newspapers and other mainstream publications in the 1990s.

Designers are given their due in a book in which any budding designer would be well-advised to invest. From mostly forgotten names, such as the 1940s designer Flora MacKenzie (who evolved from designer to brothel madam), to the rise of icons such as Kevin Berkahn, Patrick Steel and Trelise Cooper, the progress of the industry’s creators in the local and international arena is painstakingly parsed.

But all this careful research and recording would be nothing without images, and indeed, the photographs do justice to the authors’ meticulous writings. Each chapter opens with a double-page spread showing a contemporary model clad in an outfit of the period under discussion. The whole book is lavishly peppered with photographs from the time described or of period dress in the fashion collections housed and displayed in Otago Museum, Auckland Museum, Te Papa and others.

There is also the delightful spectre of the ‘hot’ models of each era: names such as Judith Baragwanath and later, her daughter Tiffany, a Patrick Steel favourite, and Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, who championed Maori fashion as a new Labour MP in the 1970s. One compelling shot shows a wasp-wasted young Queen Elizabeth, the Prince to her left, at the opening of Parliament in 1954, with the caption noting that she wore her Coronation gown without the original heavy horse-hair petticoats.

The production values are, fittingly, at the high end of the spectrum, and Random House deserves plaudits for making the investment such subject matter demands. The Dress Circle is required reading for any fashion aficionado or designer (would-be or otherwise), and a glorious walk down fashion lane for the rest of us.

Previously reviewed on

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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