Clothes have practical, cultural and symbolic purposes. They keep us warm and shield us from the hot sun. They may demonstrate the wearer’s social status, class and gender. They can function like birds’ plumage, helping the wearer to attract a mate by looking smart or glamorous. Going without clothes indicates a desire to throw aside the cultural baggage that comes with clothing, or to simply enjoy the feeling of sun and fresh air on bare skin. We explore this topic in four new stories, which we highlight today: Māori clothing and adornment – kākahu Māori, Clothes, Naturism and Beauty contests.
In traditional Māori communities, Men’s and women’s clothes were pretty similar, but certain items were restricted to people of high status, as this whakataukī (saying) illustrates:
He māhiti ki runga, he paepaeroa ki raro
Koia nei te kākahu o te rangatira!
Clothes were an extension of personal mana, which is why few early chiefly garments have survived – they were often buried with their owner or hidden after death. Some garments were simply practical and worn by all. The rain cloak was woven in such a way that the rain ran down the fibre and onto the ground, keeping the wearer dry.
Māori began wearing European clothes very soon after European settlement, and often combined them with traditional garments. Our story on clothes provides a great overview of changing fashions since the 19th century. Women have gone from long skirts and dresses, corsets, crinolines and bustles to loose waists, short hems and trousers. Men’s clothes haven’t changed nearly as much, but a man in a three-piece suit on an ordinary day is conspicuous rather than commonplace these days.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries boy babies and toddlers routinely wore dresses – clothing became more gendered as children aged. In the 21st century gendered clothing is pervasive but not always consistently – some girls are seen swathed in pink while others wear clothes a typical boy would be equally at home in.
In New Zealand nudists, or naturists as they were called from the 1950s, first threw off their sartorial shackles in the 1930s. The naturism story charts their often difficult road to social acceptance in the country that associated nudity with sex and loose morals. Naturists believed that nakedness had nothing to do with sex and was instead a healthy, natural family activity.
New Zealand seemed a nation of prudes to European immigrants, who were used to public nakedness. When bikini-wearing Dutch woman Reet Zwetsloot was told she had to wear a one-piece suit by an attendant at the Upper Hutt swimming pool in 1950, she amused herself and embarrassed him by asking which piece she should remove. Public nakedness is less shocking in the 2000s, though encountering a naked person in an unexpected place can still result in complaints.
Beauty contests hinge on looks and personality, but the right set of clothes can boost a contestant’s chances of winning the coveted crown. We have a short and sweet story on beauty contests. Soon after it was published the winner of Miss New Zealand of 1949, Mary Woodward, contacted us, and subsequently provided us with a wonderful story about the contest, which was a fundraiser for members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Read it and transport yourself with Mary back to the glory days of 1949.