Look Inside: Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910

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The museums of Aotearoa New Zealand hold a glorious treasure trove of clothing worn by fashionable women from 1840 to the early 1900s. From ball gowns and riding habits to tea gowns and dresses worn for presentations to Queen Victoria, these gowns help tell the story of the lives of early businesswomen, society women and civic figures, making Dressed a unique social history.

FASHIONABLE DRESS IN AOTEAROA ddddd3ddddddddddddddddd

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NEW ZEALAND 1840 TO 1910


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Contents Introduction



Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! 16


Hard Shopping 64


Rites of Passage 124


Balls, Plain and Fancy 188

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Feathermania 242


Dressing for Royalty 280


The Active Woman 326

The Final Word


Behind the Image 380 Notes 388 Glossary 413 Bibliography 416 Image Credits 422 Acknowledgements 423 About the Author 425 Index 426

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In 1958, Maude Nicholls gifted a number of garments that had belonged to her mother, Anna Bishop, to the Dominion Museum, Te Papa’s predecessor. 7 Introduction

Day dress made by Eliza Wrigley, 1858.

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The gift included a rich chocolate-brown silk velvet dress that Anna had worn to her daughter Diana’s wedding in 1877, a vibrant magenta bodice made from a floral silk damask from the 1880s, and two matching green silk bodices, one now minus its sleeves. 9 Introduction

Anna (née Fife, 1826–1894) had worn one of them to her wedding in Nelson in 1844. As Maude (née Bishop, 1870–1962) noted in her letter to the museum, the matching skirt ‘was dyed later on, & used as part of a rich red dress’, a fate similar to that of many a nineteenth-century skirt in the hands of an economising woman.1 As curator Edwina Ehrman has written, handling clothing from the past, encountering ‘its texture, smell and stains; the dust on a hem; a smudge of lipstick’, prompts ‘a very subjective, physical response’.2 Anna’s green bodice is no exception. Decades on, it continues to hold tangible traces of her body, in its creases where it cupped her breasts and, more intimately, on the inside where it is stained with breast milk. When handling a garment, you not only get a feel for the physicality of the person who wore it, but also for the fabric, its quality and weight, how it responds to movement and light. If you close your eyes and you can imagine what it might have been like to wear, how the wearer might have sounded as she walked or twirled on the dance floor all those years ago: crisp silks rustling and swishing, and beads softly tinkling. You also get to explore the garments’ secret interior workings – the beautiful lining fabrics and the tiny hand-stitches, the boning and bust improvers, the pulley systems and hidden pockets – details that are rarely seen in images. Every garment prompts a set of questions: Who made it? Who wore it and where,

Many parts of a woman’s dress were detachable, including collars and sleeves. This made them easier to launder, and also enabled women to easily change and update their appearance.

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and what were their lives like? The clothes they left behind hold some of the answers. Labels tell us about professional dressmakers, alterations tell us about subsequent repurposing, and sometime stains bring us startlingly close to their wearers.


10 Dressed

ike many museums founded in the nineteenth century, Te Papa began as a natural science and ethnographical museum. Its founding director, James Hector, certainly was not interested in collecting fashion, although his wife Georgiana, who appears frequently in the pages of this book, was an avid consumer and commissioner of stylish gowns. Despite Hector’s more elevated aspirations, by the turn of the century the museum had become a ‘repository for all manner of material’,3 and by the 1950s its staff were actively collecting examples of historic textiles and dress. Museum records show that from time to time they even wore them for historically themed fashion parades, a practice that would be prohibited now. This was in part a response to a growing interest in New Zealand’s colonial past among Pākehā New Zealanders, fuelled by a series of settler centenaries, with the 1940 Centennial marking one hundred years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. These celebrations of ‘material progress’ and the ‘pioneering spirit’ included exhibitions, re-enactments, pageants and fashion parades, which encouraged descendants of the early settlers, usually daughters or granddaughters, to donate their family heirlooms to their local museums, and also to what was by now called the Dominion Museum.4 This response was echoed elsewhere. When the Canterbury Museum, the Canterbury Pilgrims and Early Settlers Association and the Canterbury Repertory Theatre Society presented a ‘Cavalcade of Fashion’ as part of Canterbury’s centennial celebrations in 1950, for example, the organisers made a public appeal for clothing dating from between 1850 and 1950.5 Following the parade, many of the garments were gifted permanently to the Canterbury Museum. Most often, donated garments have been cherished by the original wearers as aides memoires associated with rites of passage or special occasions, and by the next generation as evocations of their memory.6 In many cases in the past, when these garments were gifted to museums a minimum of information was recorded. In the case of Anna Bishop’s garments, however, Te Papa is fortunate to have two

Above In the 1960s, the ‘Living Room’ of the Dominion Museum’s Colonial House featured a mannequin wearing Eliza Wrigley’s day dress.

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Below New Zealand’s dressmaking industry was populated by a range of specialists, from ‘bodice hands’ to feather workers. In this photograph Miss Adams, Queenie Hogan and Mary Jane Adams dress ostrich feathers at the Helvetica Ostrich Farm at Pukehohe, south of Auckland. Owned by LD Nathan & Co, the farm supplied the local and export market with ostrich feathers for fans, headdresses and boas.

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11 Introduction

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letters in which Maude, then eighty-eight and writing with a shaky hand, provided a little bit of background information on each of them. One of the aims of this book is to connect garments held in museums to their provenance and with contemporary accounts of dress found in letters, diaries and memoirs held in museum and library archives throughout New Zealand. These are by turns funny, gossipy, pragmatic and moving. In researching and writing this book, it has been a pleasure to spend time in the company of women such as Mary Swainson, Emily Harris and Irene Edwin, whose letters, diaries and – in the case of Irene Edwin – anecdotes written on the backs of invitations to balls, bring the past, with all its joys and foibles, vividly to life.

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useum curators are always looking to expand their knowledge of the history of objects in their collections; even a small amount of new information about a wearer or a maker can change the context or story of a dress. One example is a dress made by ‘Mrs Henry Wrigley’, as Te Papa’s catalogue records her, on the voyage to New Zealand in 1858. In the 1960s it was on show in the ‘Living Room’ of the Dominion Museum’s Colonial House display, mounted on a mannequin shown, in a postcard produced at the time, in conversation with another woman. The booklet accompanying the display ascribed the items in the room – the table, the settee, the Waterford glass bowl and so on – to the ownership of various well-known male settlers, from whence, apparently, came their value, but Eliza Wrigley’s name was absent from the acknowledgements. Her dress was used to clothe a representation of the Victorian ideal of the ‘angel of the house’, but Eliza was in fact very much a person of the world. While raising three small children, Eliza Wrigley also ran a shop specialising in millinery, hosiery and general fancy goods with her husband Henry in Wellington’s Cuba Street. The couple imported goods from London and sold them not just in Wellington but also further afield. In 1864, the same year in which she gave birth to her third child, Eliza travelled to Napier with ‘a choice selection’ of hats and bonnets. Advertising herself as ‘Mrs Wrigley, Milliner, of Wellington’, she set up what we would refer to today as a ‘pop-up shop’ for three weeks.7 Eliza was not simply a ‘colonial helpmeet’ operating on the periphery. As Catherine Bishop writes in her book Women Mean Business: Colonial Business Women in New Zealand (2019), ‘when Eliza suddenly died in 1867, Henry immediately sold up, telling potential buyers that “connections already established is very extensive”, underscoring both his wife’s centrality to the family business and her marketing ability’.8 Henry described the business as ‘large and remunerative’ for those willing, as Eliza was, to devote their attention to it.9 Eliza Wrigley is just one of several businesswomen featured in this book who worked either alongside their husbands and family members or independently to make a living in the clothing trade.

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Plaids were popular from the 1840s through to the 1860s. This plaid bodice, embellished with ribbon and fringing, dates from the 1850s. In 1857, the Illustrated London News declared that ‘Fringe was never so greatly in demand as at the present time . . . Fringe may be said to be the most becoming of all trimmings on a lady’s dress.’

13 Introduction

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14 Dressed

ressed delves into the world of fashionable women’s European dress in Aotearoa New Zealand during the long reign of Queen Victoria. Museum collections throughout New Zealand, and in particular Te Papa’s, form the core of the book, which brings together social history, material culture and local history. To give context to the garments, periodicals and newspapers offer an abundance of historical information relating to dress and the associated trades. Their advertisements not only assist in tracking the growth and decline of businesses, but also the availability and prices of different products and brands, and their columns dedicated to the latest fashions and to the local social scene – from the ballroom to the tennis court – offer exhaustive descriptions of who wore what, of long-lost colours and of mysterious fabrics. In the nineteenth century New Zealanders were kept relatively up to date with international fashion news – from the latest, outrageous Parisian fashions to obscure patent disputes – by local editors who filled their papers with articles from the international press or provided by ‘London correspondents’. Local newsagents offered subscriptions to a range of English and American magazines such as The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, The Queen, Myra’s and Harper’s Bazaar. By the late nineteenth century, New Zealand publishers had begun to produce their own weekly magazines; the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine (published from 1899 to 1905), for example, featured both international and local stories. Of course, the fashion plates and advertisements presented idealised and fanciful images: formal portraits taken in studio settings typically showed the sitters looking their smartest, dressed in their most fashionable attire with their hair especially coiffured for the occasion and their corsets pulled perhaps a little tighter than usual. More candid photographs show clothing in action in everyday life. When only parts of outfits survive, such images help us understand how entire ensembles were imagined to be and were worn; how they concealed and revealed the body; how women wore their hair and used their accessories; how they held themselves. It is always a thrill to find an actual image of a garment being worn. To view what remains of Anna Bishop’s green wedding dress alongside Charles Heaphy’s portrait of her shown in chapter three is uncanny; the colour is such a perfect match, the relationship between her body and dress so accurately rendered. On the other hand, the formal portrait of Lavinia Coates in her fancy dress costume shown in chapter four captures the illusion and ably disguises the many short cuts that were taken during its making. Elsewhere in this book, a group of portraits in the Nelson Provincial Museum enable us to come face to face with some of the owners of Nelson’s pre-eminent dressmaking establishments, including the diminutive but determined Sophia Anstice, who built a regional empire, and the much older Madame Bottenelli, clad in heavy velvet, and Mrs Pamely, who offered her customers a ‘palace of fashion and beauty’.

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he final section of the book is written by textile conservators Kate Blair and Rachael Collinge, and Samantha Gatley, who specialises in costume mounting. As a curator, my aim is to bring various garments to life through reconnecting them to the histories of their makers and wearers, but Kate, Rachael and Samantha’s combined skills help bring garments, which are generally stored flat in boxes and layered with tissue, to physical life, reinvigorating squashed bows, retraining askew fringing and gently encouraging wrinkles to relax. Their chapter focuses on the preparation of garments for photography, from conservation treatments to mounting and styling. As dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye has written, a dress, unlike a vase or a painting, ‘cannot “stand” or hang independently . . . For their form to be “read”, they demand a body’.10 The garments that appear in this book were made to fit individual rather than standardised bodies, and require the creation of bespoke dress forms and underpinnings to ‘echo’ their form and structure. Where their condition has allowed, they have been fully mounted. For this book they were then photographed by Maarten Holl, who has captured the beautiful fabrics, trimmings and textures in exquisite detail.

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15 Introduction

ressed is a local history but the chapters also travel, along with many of its protagonists, between New Zealand, Australia and Britain, with a short stopover in Philadelphia. During the nineteenth century, New Zealand sourced most of its manufactured goods, including fabrics, hosiery and all manner of haberdashery, from Britain, and the majority of those who set up in the drapery and dressmaking trades were British. In the early decades of settlement, drapers often relied on friends and well-placed family members sending goods out to the colony for them to sell. It is by this means that some Wellington women may very well have bought a bonnet or a cuff selected by none other than the novelist Charlotte Brontë, whose friend Mary Taylor owned a drapery store in the city in the 1850s. As businesses expanded, they often established offices or employed representatives in England. New Zealand in turn exported wool to Britain, and on a much smaller – although still devastating – scale, participated in the global feather market and entered into the worldwide debate over the protection of birds. Each of the book’s chapters has its genesis in a particular garment or accessory (or, in the case of chapter two, a cache of shopping bills) and the questions the items prompt, sparking a trail of research and connections. Rather than following a strict chronology through the nineteenth century, the chapters are thematic in approach, although they work their way from early encounters between Māori and Pākehā to the emergence of the so-called ‘New Woman’ at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!

In the 1840s Rangi Topeora (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa) composed a waiata after the departure of her lover, Oh Hu, or William Mayhew, an American whaler and storekeeper who occupied a whaling station near Kāpiti Island. 1

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Delaine dress worn by Mary Ann Preece, c. 1847.

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Mayhew was one of Rangi’s many lovers – in another waiata, she confesses to being a woman notorious for following her ‘hearts desires’. Her liaison with Mayhew provided him with protection and access to land, while one of his key attractions for Rangi, according to her waiata, was his ability to supply her with fine things, among them European clothes. 2

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Rangi (d. 1865–73) was not to know that it would be only a matter of months before shiploads not just of European clothes but also of European settlers would irrevocably refashion Aotearoa New Zealand. Kaore te aroha E whaki ake nei puna te roimata Ka hua I aku kamo aha Te Kai-uku Nana ra waiho mai tahi Eke nei au Te hiwi ki Parahaki marama te tiriro Te motu ki Tuhua Tahi au ka aroha

The inside of a dress worn by Charlotte Godley in the 1850s, showing its handstitching at the waist.

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Te hiwi ki [Taumo?] ki a Tangiteruru Kia pai au ka purotu wai Te kaipuke E waihape atu ra noa Na, i Te Hu He Tau a Pohiwa e rere ana ia Te tai ki Europi homai e Toru Tetehi ki a au a humehume tahi Te taku a te tipua kati au ka hoki Ki aku pepepora Ki aku kore noa iho My regret is not to be expressed Tears like a spring gush from my eyes I wonder what is Kai-uku [her former lover] doing, he who abandoned me Now I climb upon the ridge of Parahaki. Clear is the view of the Island Tūhua I see with regret the lofty [Taumo] Where dwells Tangiteruru If I were there the shark’s tooth would hang at my ear How fine, how beautiful But see whose ship is that which tacks Is it yours, Oh Hu [Mayhew] you husband of Pohiwa sailing away on the tide to Europe O Toru pray, give some of your fine things to me: for beautiful are the clothes of the whiteman Enough of this, I must return to my rags, and to my nothing at all.4

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The year 1840 marked a decisive turning point in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand. Between February and September of that year over five hundred rangatira, including Rangi Topeora, signed the Treaty of Waitangi, believing that it guaranteed them rangatiratanga, the continued right to exercise authority over their lands and resources. But there were two versions of the Treaty, one in te reo Māori

This 1852 painting by Joseph Merrett shows Rakapa Ngawai (Ngāti Maniapoto, 1821–1910) and her sons Eru and William wearing a delightful array of prints, including plaid. Rakapa was married to John Edwards, an English trader.

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21 Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!

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and one in English. In the English version, Māori ceded ‘to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty’.5 New Zealand had become another colony in the vast British Empire. On 22 January 1840 the New Zealand Company’s first immigrant ship, the Aurora, arrived at Port Nicholson to establish the settlement of Wellington. The Wellington-bound vessels were followed by a steady stream of ships bringing settlers to Whanganui from September 1840, New Plymouth from November 1841, and Nelson from February 1842. The Otago and Canterbury associations, both of which were spin-offs of the New Zealand Company, respectively brought settlers to Dunedin in 1848 and Christchurch in 1850.6 In 1839 there had been approximately two thousand non-Māori living in Aotearoa New Zealand and between 70,000 and 90,000 Māori.7 The majority of the non-Māori, like Mayhew, were whalers, sealers and traders living in coastal communities, along with a scattering of missionaries in the Bay of Islands area. By 1852, the immigrant population had grown to 28,000.8 On 20 February 1842, the New Zealand Company ship Lord Auckland anchored in Port Underwood, in Te Koko-o-Kupe, or what the English called Cloudy Bay, on its way to the new settlement of Nelson. When the ship’s passengers encountered two whaling boats and their crews, which included five Māori women, one of the new migrants, John Barnicoat, a civil engineer from Falmouth, England, was struck by the women’s appearance: Among others – English, West Indian and American there were some native men and five native women, the wives of the English etc. The women dressed in English cotton gowns with a blanket as a shawl. For ear ornaments they wore half crowns and dollars tied with black ribbon by a large hole in their ears and another in the coins. They were none of them tattooed . . .

Later, onshore at one of the whaling stations, Barnicoat met a carpenter and his Māori wife, who ‘was dressed in a splendid plaid gown and looked very well with a French crown in one ear and an English half-crown in the other’.9


halers and traders used clothes and trinkets as means of seduction, but Christian missionaries employed them as tools of conversion. When the first missionaries arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814, they brought with them a belief in Christian superiority, and were determined to bring about cultural and religious change. The Reverend Samuel Marsden, Anglican chaplain to the colony of New South Wales, became the initial force behind the New Zealand church mission after developing a friendship with two Ngāpuhi rangatira in Australia, Te Pahi and Ruatara. Marsden believed that Māori were ripe for conversion, but noted that unless ‘moral and industrious Habits are induced, little or no progress can be made in teaching them the Gospel’.10 Such habits included wearing and caring for European-style clothes and

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23 Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!

the adoption of gender-appropriate behaviour, such as modesty on the part of women.11 As historian Tony Ballantyne has written, ‘the reform of the indigenous body’, naked and tattooed, was ‘an indicator of the spiritual advance of the mission’.12 When thirty-year-old Marianne Williams (née Coldham, 1793–1879) arrived in the Bay of Islands with her husband Henry Williams, three young children and their servants in August 1823, Māori bodies kept her awake at night: ‘The tall muscular forms of the Newzealanders [sic] flitted before my mind’s eye whenever I endeavoured to sleep.’13 Henry Williams was the new head of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission, and was based at Paihia. Three years later, the couple were joined by Henry’s brother, William, and his wife Jane (née Nelson, c. 1801–1896). The CMS preferred married couples, fearing that single men, as CMS catechist Miles Pilley put it, were ‘likely to fall into the traps which are continually put in his road by native females’.14 The bodies of Māori men fitted Marianne’s understanding of masculinity, and drew her admiring eye, but near-naked Ngāpuhi women did not match her ingrained ideals of domesticated, genteel womanliness. As anthropologist Kathryn Rountree suggests, to Marianne a Māori woman’s body symbolised the absence of control: ‘she was unclothed or scantily dressed, her hair hung loose, she cared little for housework, was free with her affections, moved freely about the countryside, slept or swam as the mood took her, and killed prisoners as any male warrior might’.15 The CMS had charged Marianne with improving ‘the condition of women in New Zealand’ and providing an ‘instructive example of a happy Christian family’ in order to save them from their ‘moral wilderness’.16 She began by focusing on the appearance of ‘her girls’, as she referred to both girls and adult women – who in turn called her Mata Wiremu (Mother Williams) – cutting their hair, providing them with soap for cleaning themselves, and clothing them.17 In Christian thought the domestication and clothing of the body was linked to the re-education of the mind.18 As Rountree has observed, in the missionary stations ‘the catechism and embroidery, hymn-singing and laundering were all taught with equal vigour and conviction’.19 Marianne kept basket loads of sewing at the ready in order to keep her pupils ‘out of mischief, dirt and idleness’.20 Plain sewing, which encompassed many forms of household sewing, from making sheets to furnishings and nightwear, as well as hemming, mending and the ability to alter items, was considered a crucial household skill, and girls began lessons with a needle at a young age.21 On 5 February 1829 Marianne wrote: They have each a piece for school only: to provide in some measure for neatness and cleanliness of this, they have each a school gown to be worn at school only. Then, in the evenings, their own garments must be cut out and fixed, for their employment, as the strongest inducement to domesticate quietly, and besides this, there must always be a piece on hand with which they may sit on the steps or in the garden or in the shade, provided they keep within the precincts of our gardens.22

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Mary Ann Preece received this delaine dress as a gift from Lady Franklin, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, in Australia. In comparison to mousseline de laine (muslin of wool), British delaine was made from a more affordable mix of wool and cotton.

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nce reclothed – soberly and modestly, like the missionary women themselves – the women were also strongly encouraged to adopt a Christian name to match their new Europeanised appearance. From 1819, the missionaries could purchase hard-wearing fabrics, including Parramatta cloth, made by women convicts at the Parramatta Female Factory, British duck cloth, brown Holland, blue linen, striped cotton and ‘common print’,23 as well as haberdashery and some readymade men’s clothing from the mission’s newly established store at Kerikeri. Supplies came both from Port Jackson in New South Wales and from London.24 In 1830 the only readymade clothes women could acquire were striped cotton shifts and shoes, although by 1836 they could source drawers at the store.25 As a result, Marianne, who was to give birth to eight more children in New Zealand, was extremely grateful to family members who sent out parcels of clothes, including perfectly fitting gowns, writing that she was ‘very thankful for the stitches more than for the things themselves’ as it was work she would not have to perform.26 The mission store’s supplies were not always adequate. In November 1826, Jane Williams advised her missionary sisters in England that while she and Marianne were ‘almost inundated with pin cushions and needle books for our girls’, they were without ‘pins and needles’. She requested that they be sent workbags, common needles and pins, blue check aprons, coloured cotton handkerchiefs and, most importantly, ‘roundabouts for our native girls made of coarse dark coloured print with short sleeves’ – along with ‘pictures . . . relating to scripture history, or representing the common occurrences of civilized life’.27 The following year the store received a shipment of 2000 needles, 2089 yards of assorted cloth, sewing thread by the pound, 144 thimbles, 6 dozen gross of buttons and 300 pairs of scissors.28 As well as being used for practical lessons, thimbles, needles, knitting needles and scissors were often used as rewards for attendance and ‘good’ behaviour, along with more decorative items such as earrings, rings and ribbons.29 In December 1829, the Bay of Islands CMS missionaries gathered together in Kerikeri for an Annual Examination of the Schools. Marianne noted with pride recently baptised children accompanied by ‘their proud mothers in English attire’, and a group of girls ‘all arranged in clean blue gowns, white aprons and buff handkerchiefs’. She was also thrilled to note the quality of the needlework on display: ‘There were gowns, shirts, frocks, pinafores, trousers, flannels, nay even a boy’s jacket. Indeed, we were all astonished by the quantity of good work when we saw it all together.’ First-prize

It was originally hand-block printed, but by 1842 machine printing had become more viable following a development that improved the ability of wool to accept dyes, bringing delaines within reach of a wider public.

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winners were ‘rewarded with a gay new gown’, and runners-up received a bag or apron.30 Jane also described this event with great satisfaction, but both she and Marianne had struggled over the years to achieve their aims. Much to their continued frustration, the Ngāpuhi women who visited their mission would not easily bend to their wishes. Rather, they frequently chose to ‘do what they like when they want’.31 While valuing lessons in literacy, the women did not share the missionaries’ zeal for domestic chores, the proprieties of appearance, and genteel behaviour. Marianne found that they would not wear their ‘gowns over their shifts’, nor were they content with ‘sitting quietly and occupying oneself with needlework’, instead preferring to chat and laugh as they sewed.32 Evidence of needlework and clothing manufacture – such as thimbles, needles and buttons – has been found by archaeologists at the mission stations. One dress, reputed to have been made by the mission’s pupils, survives in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.33 The dress was made for one of their teachers, Mary Ann Williams (1802–1878), who wore it on the day of her wedding in January 1833 to James Preece, a catechist at the mission. Mary Ann, who was not related to Henry and William Williams, arrived at Paihia from Sydney in 1831 to assist Marianne and Jane at the school. While living in Sydney with her mother, Mary Ann had worked at the Female School of Industry in Parramatta. Run by a ladies’ committee under the auspices of Eliza Darling, wife of the governor of New South Wales, the school had been established to provide education for the daughters of the poor.34 Mary Ann’s dress, made from a fine brown cotton print featuring a check and a flower sprig design, cut with fashionable but impractical gigot (‘leg-of-mutton’) sleeves, and assembled with small, neat stitches, is a testimony to the mission pupils’ adopted needlework skills.


n 1844 the English artist George French Angas travelled throughout New Zealand to document the ‘habits, costumes, and works of art’ of Māori that were now, in his eyes, ‘rapidly disappearing before the progress of Christianity and Civilization’.35 In Angas’s painting of three Ngāti Toa women from ‘the neighbourhood of Te Rangihaeata’s Pah’ – that is, Rangi Topeora’s brother’s pā, on the Kāpiti coast – Rua and Pari wear korowai woven from dressed harakeke.36 In addition to the customary black muka tags, the korowai are decorated with red woollen tufts. Angas observed that Māori were attracted to ‘wool of the gayest colors’, and that women unpicked ‘blue and scarlet caps, and variegated “comforters” brought by the traders’ to make ‘tufted ornaments for their dresses’,37 whereas in the past they might have used orange kākā feathers.38

George French Angas’s 1847 book The New Zealanders Illustrated documented Māori dress and the changes that were taking place as the result of colonisation.

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In contrast to Rua and Pari, the third woman in the group, Hoki, is enveloped in a commodious red woollen blanket with a satin ribbon border. Among Māori and many other cultures across the Pacific, red was the colour of mana, and, Angas wrote, a ‘costume highly esteemed amongst the Maories, and displayed by them on festive occasions’.39 Red blankets were among the first items of trade offered by Captain James Cook and his crew when they sailed into New Zealand waters in 1769. Te Apāpao-te-rangi, a Tūranga-nui rangatira, recalled that ten red blankets were among the many gifts given to the people of Uawa Tolaga Bay; these were given the name pāraiketetahurangi, or ‘fairy blankets’.40 From this first contact onwards, blankets became a much sought-after commodity. The CMS missionaries received regular consignments of blankets for trade – in August 1830 the Kerikeri mission store collected a shipment of just over a thousand blankets from the Captain Wright.41 As Angas’s painting of Hoki illustrates, Māori reimagined their use; historian James Belich notes that Māori ‘chose, adjusted and repackaged the new’ as they saw fit, utilising Europe’s products and technologies for their own ends.42 Māori favoured blankets because they could be worn in a similar way to kākahu. As Māori scholar Hirini Moko Mead (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūhourangi) has written, Māori forms of clothing, such as the kākahu, rāpaki and piupiu, were designed to be wrapped around the body. In comparison, European clothing – shirts, trousers, dresses, petticoats, stockings – was designed to be ‘climbed into’.43 As a result, it was more restrictive. Even as the missionaries strove to cover up Māori bodies, a number of Europeans expressed dismay at Māori adoption of European dress. The French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville first visited New Zealand in 1824, and when he returned in 1840 he was disappointed to see that Māori had ‘abandoned the old spirit of independence’ and looked like beggars in rags. He commented: ‘No trace of any skilled industry was to be found; the cloaks of Phormium (flax) have been replaced by woollen garments from Europe; the inhabitants of Otago seem to have given up on the primitive dress which suited them so well.’44 George French Angas, having carefully recorded the details of so many different types of kākahu on his travels and further having marvelled at the skill of their makers, mourned the decline of indigenous weaving practices, although his comments are coloured by the Christian obsession with idleness. . . . the women spend a considerable portion of their time in making these flax dresses . . . as every thread is tied by the hand with great care and

Māori weavers were quick to incorporate wool into their work. This kākahu from the 1840s or early 1850s is adorned with woollen ngore, or pompoms.

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exactness, the time occupied in the completion of one of these mats is often twelvemonths . . . Unfortunately the natives now procure blankets at so cheap a rate, that the fabrication of their beautiful flax garments is much neglected, and will, probably in a very few years, be substituted by European clothing; the consequence is, that they become idle, and the blankets which they obtain in return for their pigs and potatoes, keep their skins in a state of perpetual irritation, and engender consumption and other diseases.45

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any of the settlers who arrived with their worldly possessions in New Zealand from 1840 onwards also brought blankets to trade with Māori. Before Ruatara took Marsden’s first group of missionaries under his protection in 1814, he had been warned by an unknown gentleman at Port Jackson that the arrival of the missionaries would be the beginning of an influx of Pākehā settlers into his homeland.46 On 17 August 1839, just over twenty years after Ruatara’s death, the Tory arrived in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Port Nicholson. The ship carried the New Zealand Company’s principal agent, Colonel William Wakefield, and his staff, who were charged with selecting a location for the intended settlement, purchasing land and making arrangements for the first wave of settlers who would start arriving the following January.47 Those who answered the Company’s call to create a ‘Little England’ in the South had much to prepare prior to boarding. Emigrants needed to pack not only for a voyage that could last anywhere from 75 to 120 days, but also for their new life once ashore, which meant including everything from clothes to prefabricated houses. In the 1840s a range of guides for would-be settlers were available, although they often offered contradictory advice.48 John Bright, the author of the Handbook for Emigrants and Others (1841), for example, advised that ‘Clothes in the Colony are as at home, except that you should provide, what at home would be, an excess of summer apparel’.49 Bright assured his readers that ‘In New Zealand, and the other colonies, the markets are glutted with English goods’, and that emigrants could purchase ‘most articles necessary for your comfort, and even luxury, at a less cost than yours taken from England would amount to’.50 George Earp painted a more realistic picture in his 1849 Handbook for Intending Emigrants to the Southern Settlements of New Zealand. He advised emigrants ‘that you can not replace articles in new colonies so favourably as you can get them at

Jane McPhail wore this dress for her wedding in Scotland to Alexander McPhail, a carpenter, and brought it to New Zealand when she immigrated in 1863. Brown was a practical and therefore popular colour. The fabric has been woven à la disposition.

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home’, and so, they should ‘choose a respectable, well-established outfitter’ before leaving England. Earp warned his readers: It is a common opinion that anything is good enough for colonial purposes; but this is a great mistake; for though dress, as the term is understood here, is the last thing considered in a colony, yet the goodness of the materials is a very important point. Clothes, horribly made, linen, which will hardly endure a second washing, are not good enough for a colony; but these will invariably be the result of cheap purchases.

On the other hand, ‘expensive or rich clothing’ was not required. A dandy would be quite out of place in a colony, and it would not be difficult to prognosticate the end of his colonial career. Not that society does not require propriety of dress, upon all fitting occasions. It does so, and no one who does not conform to it would long be tolerated . . . Upon ordinary occasions, the roughness of a colonist’s pursuits suggests clothing that will stand rough usage; and it must be good to stand this. The better class of colonists is always distinguished by plainness, but excellence, of costume.51

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Earp recommended that a labourer’s wife should, at the very least, pack twelve calico chemises, six petticoats (two of them flannel), four flannel waistcoats, eighteen pairs of cotton stockings, two pairs of shoes, one pair of boots, three cotton dresses and two bonnets along with sewing notions and a clothes bag.52 In contrast, he recommended that a lady should bring: 48 Calico or Cambric Chemises 36 Calico Night Dresses 30 Night Caps 24 Cambric Slips 24 Calico Middle Petticoats 3 Flannel Petticoats 1 Horse-hair Petticoat 24 Fine Flannel Waistcoats 24 pair of Cambric Trousers (drawers) 48 Pocket Handkerchiefs 24 pairs of fine Cotton Stockings 24 pairs of Thread Stockings 12 pairs of white Silk Hose 2 pairs of black Silk Hose 1 coloured or white Flannel Dressing-Gown, warm 2 coloured Dressing Gowns

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8 white Muslin do. 4 Coloured Morning Dresses 8 Muslin Dresses 4 Dinner Dresses 2 Silk Dresses, and 1 Satin Dress is also desirable 2 Muslin-de-laine or Chalie Dresses 3 pairs of Stays 1 Cloak 8 pairs of Shoes 2 Bonnets Shawl Fancy Handkerchiefs Fancy Aprons Capes, Collars, &c. Ribbons, Gauzes, &c. Haberdashery, Needles, &c.

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This plaid bodice from around 1860 features what were then known as Gabrielle sleeves – full sleeves shaped into puffs from the shoulder to the wrist with ribbon or braid. As with many garments in museum collections, the bodice is all that remains of this dress. There was so much fabric in the skirts of this period that they were often refashioned into the latest silhouette and eventually cut up for children’s clothes.

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1 Work-Box 12 pairs of white Kid Gloves 19 pairs of coloured Gloves Long white Kid Gloves 24 pairs of Thread or Silk Gloves


12 pairs of Thread or Lace Gloves 12 pairs of Lace Mittins Long Lace Mittins 1 Clothes-bag 12 Dusters


For the voyage itself, Earp advised that old dresses, including ‘A moderately good silk dress, one or two muslin-de-laine dresses, three or four morning cotton dresses, and one or two dressing-gowns will be all that is required.’ The rest ‘should be carefully packed in tin boxes’ to protect them from the sea air. On cleaning days, passengers often brought out their dresses and umbrellas to assess them for mildew before packing them away again.53 He also warned against packing dresses that had been worn with new dresses, no doubt so any mildew or moths perhaps present in old clothing would not spread.54 Bright also went as far as to recommend ‘that females take one half to make up on board’ – that is, to sew.55 The New Zealand Company also advised that women should equip themselves with fabric and sewing equipment in order to keep themselves busy on the voyage. Elizabeth Caldwell (1819–1907), who arrived in Nelson on the Eden in November 1850 with her husband and five children, with another on the way, commented, ‘I did a quantity of needlework and so never found the time hang heavy on my hands’.56 Eliza Wrigley (née Pritchard, c. 1821–1867), who sailed to New Zealand on the Clontarf and on arrival established a drapery business with her husband in Wellington, made a simply constructed but striking dress during the voyage. It is made from a silk and wool gauze that has been printed à la disposition with a floral and tartan pattern. Other women busied themselves knitting stockings.

Eliza Wrigley made this dress by hand during her voyage to New Zealand on the Clontarf in 1864. The lack of shaping in the bodice suggests that she did not have a pattern to follow, and that she lacked knowledge about how to properly go about it.

Right This watercolour from 1864 shows female passengers on what is believed to be the Royal Dane, a Queensland emigrant clipper, occupying themselves with sewing, as recommended for long voyages.

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This pattern was to be repeated over the next few decades, with women not only attending to their own sewing during the long voyage, but also passing their skills on to others. On her passage to the colony, dressmaker Hannah Seymour received lessons from ‘Miss A’ on how to knit lace,57 and she also busied herself with mending, necessitated by the rats nibbling through her and her sister’s clothes during the night. In frustration she complained to her diary, ‘The horrid things have been eating my jacket bodice which was behind my pillow. We always put all our garments in bed or hang them to the ceiling out of their track. But they still find them.’58 Frances Shepherd (1813–?), who settled in Motueka, near Nelson, had her own advice for would-be settlers. She urged her parents to advise anyone else that they knew to be emigrating to bring ‘plenty of good strong clothes, particularly strong shoes and trousers’, noting that ‘even women here wear strong shoes’.59 The importance of strong shoes is a recurring message in the letters Mary Frederica Swainson (1826–1854) sent to her grandparents in London during the 1840s. When they asked her what would be the ‘most useful’ items to send, Mary had no hesitation in replying ‘shoes’.60 She wrote that she had spent ten shillings on a pair of boots in Wellington ‘which in England would have only cost five and they are now, after about three months wear, so worn and shabby as to make me quite ashamed to wear them,

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as indeed they were after the first month’s wear’.61 A couple of years later, boots were once again top of mind for Mary, for both her brothers and herself: They are more expensive I know, but then one pair of boots is equal to two pairs of shoes, so in future, if God is pleased to spare you, will you send boots. The same observation applies to me, walking shoes not being so serviceable as boots, and not white ones if you please – I like better black jean or cloth, to button, for the very strong cloths for walking are always serviceable.62

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Mary Swainson had left Birmingham in 1840 and arrived in New Zealand in 1841 at the age of fourteen with her father, William Swainson, her new stepmother, who had been her governess, and her four brothers.63 Mary’s mother had died in 1835, leaving her father, a naturalist renowned for his abilities as an illustrator, bereft. As well as being grief-stricken, Swainson had become disillusioned with the British scientific community following criticism of his written work, and like many settlers he saw New Zealand as an opportunity for a fresh beginning. Mary appears to have taken to colonial life with enthusiasm. The Swainsons were originally destined for Hokianga, but they decided to settle in Thorndon, in Wellington, while they established a larger property in the Hutt Valley, or ‘Eherontaonga’ (a version of Heretaunga) as Mary preferred to call it, where she happily immersed herself in the creation of a garden as ‘there is not much society’.64 A regular correspondent herself, she ‘feasted’ on letters from family and friends in England,65 and looked forward with much anticipation to the arrival of supplies from ‘home’. She had an annual allowance of ten guineas for clothes,66 and she hoped that once the family had the Eherontaonga property up and running

Immigrants brought out essentials or new clothes and often also heirlooms and garments with sentimental value. Mary Burnett (1822– 1912) packed this dress and poke bonnet when she immigrated with her mother, grandmother and three siblings to New Zealand in 1852. She had planned to wear the dress, which dates from the late 1820s, as her ‘going-away’ dress in the 1840s, but she broke off her engagement over the invitation list. The dress has been remodelled many times, and was used for fancy dress.

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she would have her own fowl yard and would be able to sell eggs in Wellington to ‘bring me in a little money’ so that she could ‘send to England for any little things, or large, that I want’.67 Although Mary advised her grandparents that Wellington was certainly ‘before’ Auckland when it came to ‘houses, shops, etc’, if not climate,68 she noted in another letter that while they could get almost anything at different times in Wellington, items were not always in constant supply.69 Traders had set up general stores on their arrival, often selling from tents prior to the construction of more permanent premises. Of the settlement that was to become Wellington, Henry Petre, who arrived in January 1840 on the Oriental, wrote: When Colonel Wakefield entered Port Nicholson, the only inhabitants of its shores were the natives of the country, with the exception of a single Englishman, who had lived amongst them for some years, and adopted their mode of life. Yet within a few weeks of our arrival, a considerable trade had grown up amongst us. Squatters as we were, we had stores of British goods, extensive dealings with the natives of our immediate neighbourhood and other parts of Cook’s Strait, a bank which furnished us with a sufficient currency, and even a newspaper which was regularly published once a week.70

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By 1842, there were 104 shopkeepers in Auckland, including David Nathan, a Londoner who had originally established a waterfront store at Kororāreka with goods he had brought from England. Realising that the capital would soon move to Auckland, he opened a second store in the new town. At first he sold his goods from a tent, but by August 1841 he had moved into a wooden store he built on the corner of Shortland Crescent and High Street.71 A similar pattern occurred throughout the colony: tent stores were followed by the erection of wooden buildings and a gradual move from general stores to more specialist stores such as drapers, grocers and butchers. As Mary and others found, however, their stock was often limited and expensive.


his explains why Mary Swainson’s letters are peppered with requests for sewing materials, and expressions of joy at their receipt. In April 1843, she sent a long list of wants to her grandmother, which included ‘thread stockings instead of silk, as I believe they are cheaper, and I like them better’, brown Holland for making ‘blouses’ for her brothers and to cover her parasol, and ‘Tapes, buttons, cottons, needles and cording buttons sets’ as they ‘are always very useful as well as calico’.72 In August she wrote to her grandmother again, describing what she had made from the supplies. The flannel made me two petticoats, and George and Henry waistcoats: the brown Holland made them each a blouse: the fine calico I used for drawers for myself, the strong I have used, some for lining my frock bodies with, and

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the rest will be made into drawers for them; the worsted has been knitted into socks for them and Papa: the cotton etc, I found most useful as I do all the mending of the clothes for my three brothers.73

Mary went on to ask her grandmother if she could send another parcel of materials: . . . some black bone buttons, black thread and cotton, black sewing silk, small wire and perle buttons for shirts, small black and white hooks and eyes, also tape and cording, some strong boot laces for my brothers, some black ribbon for my shoes, and some buttons for George and Henry’s blouses. These are small things, dear Grandmamma, but I shall be much obliged if you will get them for us. Calico, Brown Holland and Flannel is always useful . . . I will be very glad of some frocks, and I will send the pattern, as you are so kind as to say you will have them made for me.74

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Unfortunately, the dress her grandmother made from the pattern Mary sent did not fit adequately, so in February 1844 Mary sent another pattern that she felt fitted her ‘very well’.75 Before the development of proportional sewing patterns, women frequently made muslin or paper patterns from existing garments – which they had first to unpick – in order to avoid the pitfalls of cutting and fitting.76 They then had to reassemble the dress they had taken apart, as well as make the new one.77 A few months after sending the new dress pattern, Mary also promised to send an old shoe and glove from which patterns could be made, as those her grandparents had sent out were too big for her. She wrote, however, that they fitted her stepmother, ‘so between her, and what I could do at the shop I exchanged them, only your things are much better than I had much rather not’.78 Mary also made do with what materials she had. When she received some purple silk that was not full enough to make a skirt, she ‘made a Cardinal cape of it’ – a waist-length cloak, without a hood or collar, typically made in red. Although she admitted that she was ‘ashamed to be always asking for things’, she could not stop herself asking for ‘enough cloth for a riding habit’, which she would have made up in Wellington.79 One of Mary’s greatest joys was riding out with her new friend Ellen Petre (née Walmesley, 1825–1885).80 Ellen, who was just two days Mary’s senior, had married Henry Petre in 1842 in England. Petre and his young bride returned to New Zealand with two thoroughbred horses from England and twenty mares from the Cape of Good Hope.81 Among Mary’s other requests to her grandmother were ‘some prints or muslins for summer’, although her pragmatic side forced her to admit that ‘dark dresses’ and ‘washing ones’ are the most useful.82 Washing dresses were made from cotton or ‘washing silk’ and, as the name suggests, they could be easily washed, unlike dresses made from stuff (wool) or silk. Frances Shepherd wrote to her parents in London that ‘Silk, satins and de laines are all very fine to keep in the boxes to look at but they are no use for wearing, good strong cotton dresses are the most serviceable’.83 Even

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Sturdy boots were needed by all immigrants, including women, to navigate the terrain.

Below Small items of needlework were often made by women as gifts. As these woolwork slipper tops demonstrate, some did not manage to always complete their projects. Woolwork – also known as Berlin work after the gridded patterns, which were first published in Germany – became increasing popular in the 1840s as patterns began to appear in magazines. Once the pattern had been stitched, they could be taken to a shoemaker to be made up into slippers, which were worn indoors by both men and women.

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the well-to-do Charlotte Godley, whose husband Robert was the chief agent of the Canterbury Association, wrote to her mother in September 1850 bemoaning the fact that ‘everything wears out so fast here with fading in the hot sun, the mud and much outdoor work’.84 She had been in the country for just nine months. Back in London, Mary Swainson’s well-to-do childhood friend Isabel Percy helped her keep abreast of fashion. She admiringly gave Mary ‘great credit’ for making all her own morning dresses, provided her with measurements for the latest in small collars, and described how she had her own sleeves made ‘à coude [with an elbow seam] because then they do not drag when one bends the arm’. It was, she admitted, ‘the old fashionable way of cutting them’, but she also assured Mary that ‘as no one who does not look minutely can see the difference, except that the sleeve fits better, it does not signify I think’. 85 While furnishing Mary with books on Italian and other subjects of interest, Isabel also sent patterns and materials for lace work, and a ‘specimen of lace work in coloured lamb’s wool’, which she thought made ‘a pretty berthe [a capelike collar] for a white gown’. Although she described the technique as ‘very quick, pleasant work’, she sent it unfinished.86 Patterns for accessories were frequently traded among family and friends, and they were a way of keeping up with the latest fashions even if one had to wear strong shoes. As Isabel indicated, even a small change, such as a new collar, could help update a dress. In 1844 Sarah Harris (née Hill, 1806–1879), who had settled in New Plymouth, wrote to her sister-in-law asking her to send out a ‘pattern of a fashionable bonnet, collar and cape’.87 Although Mary Swainson’s lists of requests are interspersed with expressions of gratitude to her grandparents for sending out so many things, she wasn’t above admonishing them when they sent the wrong things, including large pearl buttons when she had wanted ‘the smallest sort of pearl button’ or lace-ups when she wanted button boots.88 Mary also sent her grandparents gifts in return – a Māori sleeping mat, shells, ferns and seeds,89 and items of her own making, including ‘a pair of slippers that I had begun, but had no wool to finish’. She sent the latter in a parcel to her Aunt Bessie, asking her to finish them for Grandpa.90


erchants throughout the colony regularly placed advertisements in the local newspapers announcing the arrival of bargains just received from the latest ship. Many settlers, however, continued to rely on personal shipments from friends and relatives, and throughout the 1840s and 1850s they rejoiced in the arrival of long-anticipated parcels. John Waring Saxton immigrated to Nelson with his wife Priscilla and their five children, along with Priscilla’s mother, John’s brother, the Reverend Charles Saxton, and Charles’s wife Mary, in 1842. Writing in his diary on 14 July 1845, John noted that he had spent ‘all day taking out the contents of boxes’, delighting in ‘Two suits and shirts for me, bonnets for all, caps, shoes, ribbons, stockings, silk dresses, shawls, silk neckerchiefs, a beautiful gold ring with our family crest and a photograph of

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Maria and Fanny.’91 Both Te Papa and the Nelson Provincial Museum hold substantial collections relating to the Saxton family, including delicate lace caps for indoors, adorned with ribbons and drop beads, bonnets for outdoor excursions, and silk shoes for evening, many of which would have been gifts. Sarah Harris, her husband Edwin, who was an artist and surveyor, and their children Hugh, Emily and Catherine arrived at New Plymouth on the ship William Bryan in 1841. In 1853, Sarah wrote to her sister Emma expressing both absolute joy and gratitude on receiving a parcel from friends in England: The parcel came free to us, the shawl and dress are beautiful, how shall I thank the Streets for so much generosity? I feel I ought to write to them but how to express myself sufficiently pleased I cannot tell so you must say all you can my dear sister. The flannel was a prize, I feel very grateful to them. The doll is pretty, the bags much admired, each claimed one, even baby strutted about with one on her arm. The cotton and boxes very pretty and useful. I must not forget the beautiful collar, mats and bread cloths. I have been making some in crochet work but not so handsome. Everything is very dear still, the shopkeepers get 25 per cent on their goods, money 10 per cent. This will give you some idea how much it will cost to clothe a large family, so that presents are very valuable but I am not selfish.92

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Satisfaction, however, was not often instantaneous: items were often held up at customs. In the early 1850s Charlotte Godley wrote to inform her mother that while she had the Ladies’ Companion her sister Sarah had sent her, she had not as yet received the gown because, she sarcastically noted, New Zealand had ‘such an advanced and superior custom house, that the gown had to be kept two days to be valued’.93 Nor were all parcels gratefully received. In 1862, Ellen Bury (née Deighton, 1827– 1914), who was living in Nelson, received a box from a family friend in England. She deemed two of the ‘dresses’ – a green silk and a ‘shaded brown and white mohair’, neither of which were ‘made-up’ – exceedingly pretty.94 She decided, however, to ‘make a hack’ of a ‘very ugly’ mohair with a magenta stripe, and to gift a black shawl, which she declared ‘common and ugly’, to her servant Anne Grey as a wedding present. When she finally had the green silk made up by a seamstress in her new hometown of Christchurch – a place she deemed less fashionable than Nelson – she was disappointed as ‘it is not very nicely done, and has cost me 16/11’.95

These lace caps, intended for indoor wear, were among the many gifts gratefully received by John and Priscilla Saxton from friends and family in England.

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hen the first wave of immigrant ships began to arrive, many of the new settlers encountered Māori before they had even set foot on dry land. Local Māori would paddle out in waka to greet them, and often boarded the ships. They also assisted settlers to shore, although perhaps not always as rapturously as in George Baxter’s imaginary depiction of the arrival of a group of Wesleyan missionaries in New Plymouth, formerly Ngāmotu, in 1844. The group included Charles and Eliza Creed, and in Baxter’s image, which was published in the Wesleyan Missionary Society’s Journal, Mrs Creed appears as a vision of light, borne ashore on the shoulders of ‘seven native females in a transport of joy’.96 It would not have been difficult for Baxter to imagine the details of Mrs Creed’s attire with accuracy – a straw bonnet which perfectly frames her face, a silk dress with fitted sleeves and a pointed bodice, and a fluttering shoulder cape – even if he took liberties with colour, cream not being practical for a travel dress. His inaccurate depiction of Māori dress, the landscape and the foliage, however, reveal that the artist had never been to New Zealand. Many settlers excitedly recorded their first impressions of their hosts. Sarah Stephens, whose ship the Fifeshire anchored in Port Nicholson before heading on to Nelson early in

This fanciful image by George Baxter, who never actually visited New Zealand, depicts a group of Wesleyan missionaries, including the angelically dressed Eliza Creed, arriving in Taranaki to a rapturous welcome.

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1842, was thrilled when a group of Māori came on board. In a letter to her sister, she wrote that they were good-natured and elegant: ‘The chief had a plaid coat of English make and his lady a blue cotton wrapper and under that a garment of white calico.’97 In another letter, Sarah wrote, ‘They are a fine race of people and there is a great deal of intelligence in their countenances. All that we met were covered with blanket or mat . . .’98 Not everyone’s first experience was so positive. When Sarah Harris came ashore at the fledgling settlement of New Plymouth she was shocked to see ‘a native woman with one of my dresses on’.99 Heading ashore in advance of his wife, her husband Edwin had traded one of her dresses for a kākahu before Sarah had even made landfall. To add insult to injury, the dress did not even fit its new owner: ‘It was a delicate blue thin material & looked so ridiculous, the back not meeting by four inches & nothing under, so the brown skin of her back was quite bare. I thought she looked far worse than in her native mat.’ Sarah had not been prepared for her husband to start exchanging clothes so soon, but the couple had arrived prepared for trade with Māori. They had a stock of blankets with which to pay local Māori for their services, including engaging their help to build the family a whare.100 As Henry Weeks, Surgeon of the New Zealand Company, observed, Māori had become ‘excellent judges of a blanket’, so the quality needed to be good. ‘A pig could be procured at first for a large blanket; but the prices rapidly rose to two or more according to the quality, of which the natives were generally better judges than Europeans.’101 In lieu of money, clothing also played an important role in trade and bargaining with Māori in the early years. Susannah Wall (née Dowedeswell, 1805–1873), who emigrated with her husband and sons and settled on a farm on Porirua Road, north of Wellington, in 1841, bartered blankets and ‘different articles of clothing’ for pigs. She proudly wrote to her sisters that she had learned to speak some Māori and could make some ‘pretty good bargains’.102 Joseph Simmonds, a Nelson settler, used ‘clothing we could do without’ to purchase toetoe for thatching his roof.103 John Barnicoat, who also settled in Nelson, noted that Māori traded ‘potatoes, pigs, melons, pumpkins, cabbages etc’ in exchange for ‘all kinds of clothing, boxes, printed calicos etc. Blankets are being superseded by European dresses but are still in great demand particularly if large and stout. If the size is small or the fabric light it is immediately pronounced “no good”.’104 Early on, the Harrises lost almost everything except the clothes on their backs –

Introduced birds such as chickens, pheasants and peacocks provided Māori weavers with an array of new feathers to experiment with. Peacock feathers eventually fell out of favour as Māori adopted the Pākehā superstition that the feather was a harbinger of bad luck.

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which Sarah described as their ‘fortune’ – in a fire, a not uncommon event in settler communities. Fellow settlers started a subscription fund for the family, but they continued to struggle for some time. Sarah wrote to her sisters a year on, in 1842: The loss by the fire was a very serious trouble to us. The few settlers had nothing to sell or give & the store required money for goods which had to be earned first. So I collected a great many burnt articles & made cloth shoes for the children & many little things sewed together came in useful until we could receive an outfit from England, which arrived twelve months after & when the box was opened what delight it was with the dear children standing round exclaiming as each article was taken out. Oh! That’s for me. That’s for Baby, that’s for papa & Oh! what a nice dress for mama etc etc. And so there was great joy & I felt grateful to the Great Grace of all things for his goodness in permitting us to receive it safely.105




he Hirst family, who arrived in New Plymouth in 1852 from Yorkshire, purposely arrived with goods for sale. Thomas Hirst established himself as a wool classer and buyer, and his wife Grace (née Bracken, 1805–1901) set about trading. She made a 50 percent profit on furniture, jewellery and clothing she had brought with her from England, and became not only a merchant but also a moneylender, charging 15 percent on short-term loans.106 The Bracken family continued to supply her with goods to sell. Her daughters were just as enterprising, on-selling second-hand clothes sent out to New Plymouth by their Aunt Elizabeth.107 In a journal letter home to her aunts, Mary Hirst (1830–1917) described some of their sales over a period of months, including velvet bonnets and a couple of their mother’s old veils (thirteen shillings and sixpence for one).108 A local Māori woman called Ehina purchased Mary’s green cloak and a riding hat for one pound,109 and a man called Etimo ‘fell in love with the black satin mantle’ that their Aunt Elizabeth had sent and which he wanted for his wife. On collecting the mantle, Etimo’s wife was ‘so delighted’ with it ‘that she danced up and down the floor and pulled out the sovereign at once’. Etimo then offered the sisters another crown for Annie’s victorine, or fur shoulder cape.110 The Hirst sisters’ Māori customers wore their newly acquired clothes in the same spirit as Marianne Williams’ pupils at the mission station – that is, however they

In this painting by George Angas, Toenga (Ngāti Maru) wears a harakeke kākahu and a hat ‘of foreign manufacture’ that Angas declared ‘fashionable amongst the gay damsels who visit Auckland to spend their money at the stores of the Europeans’.

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pleased. Paera, for example, who often assisted the Hirst family on washday, wore ‘an old petticoat tied around her waist, and another tied over one shoulder and under the other’.111 Mary’s sister Jane (1833–1909) sold her ‘green cloak trimmed with satin’, which she had worn on the boat coming out to New Zealand, to a Māori man who had no hesitation in wearing it with his gun.112 John Barnicoat recorded a meeting with a chief called Tarra [sic] who, dressed in a woman’s black cloak, purchased a ‘handsome table cloth’ for his sister to wear as a garment for, like a cloak, it wrapped around the body. Rather than thinking this strange or inappropriate, Barnicoat observed that ‘New Zealand women dress with more grace in a table cloth than a European in any dress of her choice’.113 Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, settlers relied on Māori goodwill and support, especially when it came to food supplies. In Auckland William Swainson, New Zealand’s attorney general, declared that Māori trade had made ‘Auckland the great emporium of New Zealand’.114 In an impassioned letter to the New Zealander in 1847, a correspondent who signed himself ‘Auckland Settler’ described the city’s indigenous population as ‘our very life blood, the vital fluid, which freely circulating through every part of our system, supports our healthy existence; we cherish it as such’.115 As well as proving themselves skilled producers and traders, Māori were also consumers and were just as keen as Pākehā to spend their earnings in stores around the country. When George French Angas painted his highly sentimentalised and coquettish portrait of Toenga (Ngāti Maru), he noted that her hat, garlanded in pikiarero (Clematis paniculata), was ‘of foreign manufacture, but has of late become fashionable amongst the gay damsels who visit Auckland to spend their money at the stores of the Europeans; and who instead of manufacturing their native costumes from the fibres of the Phormium, prefer purchasing muslins, and even satins, with which to adorn themselves on state occasions’.116 In Wellington, Māori regularly shopped at the general store owned by George and Susan Waters (née Lanksheer, c. 1816–1899). The Waters had arrived in Wellington in 1842, and when George and his brother were unable to find work in their trades as painters and glaziers they built a store, ‘tumbl[ing] everything saleable’ into it including ‘linens and wearables’. By the end of 1843, Susan also had ‘as much employment as I choose in dressmaking, mostly for the native women’, and she learned to speak te reo Māori as a result of their custom.117 The travel writer Alexander Marjoribanks reported that another Wellington merchant had advised him that he had a hundred Māori clients on his books, and that Māori were ‘fond of being dressed like the British’, and ‘very honourable in discharging their debts’.118 Marjoribanks added that ‘being great misers many of them are becoming opulent’. Māori moved between both clothing traditions, often dressing in Pākehā clothing for town, and dispensing with it on their return home.119 As weaver and academic Maureen Lander (Ngāpuhi) has written, ‘Mix and match was the fashion of the day, with blankets, European clothing and traditional dress often worn simultaneously, a colourful bricolage reflected by the wool and muka, or flax fibre, adornments on the cloaks themselves.’120 As well as adopting

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elements of European dress, Māori weavers continued to incorporate new materials and techniques into their weaving practices. Many experimented with embroidery techniques, feathers from imported birds such as chickens, pheasants and peacocks, and mixing traditions such as applying tāniko borders to feather kākahu. Weavers also began to add new types of garments and accessories to their repertoire, such as pari bodices and purse-like kete. Woven garments and accessories also attracted European interest. Settlers, including Charlotte Godley, who sent her mother a ‘flax basket made for me by a Maori woman’,121 frequently sent ‘mats’ and kete to England as gifts to friends and family.


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s Mary Swainson’s correspondence and the diaries of Laura Taylor (1833– 1887), demonstrate, knitting, sewing and mending were almost daily tasks for young settler women. Laura, who was born in Cambridge, England, was the daughter of Caroline and the Reverend Richard Taylor. The family left England for Sydney in 1836, and in 1839 travelled to Waimate in the Bay of Islands before finally settling at the Putiki Mission in Whanganui. Three of Laura’s diaries, dating from the late 1840s and the 1850s, survive.122 Each day she jotted down her daily tasks and observations. In between baking cakes, making jellies, horse riding and contending with earthquakes, Laura spent many hours of the day with a needle in hand. Like most genteel girls, she would have been taught to sew from around the age of five or six, and by twelve she would have been proficient at plain sewing and mending.123 She made caps and habit shirts for horse riding for her mother, trimmed newly arrived hats for her sisters, and made clothes for herself, including dresses and a paletot ( jacket), and various dolls. She even made decorative tassels to adorn her horse.124 She crocheted and knitted, copying crochet patterns from a book borrowed from friends, and delighting in new knitting books her father brought home in June 1852.125 Occasionally, she made items for people outside the family, for example knitting a silk purse for the local teacher, William Ronaldson, using silk that he supplied.126 As well as making things anew, Laura also patched aprons together, and like Mary Swainson she attended to the family’s mending.127 John Waring Saxton frequently noted in his diary that Priscilla and his mother-in-law, Mrs Crumpton, did not go to bed until two or three in the morning on the days they washed and ironed, or that when Priscilla discovered that her husband’s ‘clean shirt wanted mending’ she ‘continued at it and did not get to bed till three o’clock’. One evening, following a day of washing, Mrs Crumpton was ‘so weary that she fell asleep over her supper and upset it in her lap’.128 In 1862, Ellen Bury of Nelson wrote to her mother, ‘I am so overwhelmed with needlework just now and shall be, if I am alive, until Christmas.’ She was trying to make a new set of frocks for her daughter, and a dress for another woman’s child, and was questioning whether or not she should attempt such a thing ‘with all the mantua [dress] making, to say nothing of the patching and mending I have to do’.129

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Mending, along with careful cleaning and storage, was both economically and morally prudent and an important part of keeping up appearances, as the missionaries stressed to their Māori pupils. Anne Bowman, the author of the English domestic manual The Common Things of Every-Day Life: A Book of Home Wisdom for Mothers and Daughters (1857), decreed ‘a glove that wants mending, an unlaced boot, or unbrushed hair’ denoted ‘a sloven, a character always despised’.130 She continued fearfully: It is disgraceful to see a young lady with a shawl rumpled as if it had never been folded since it was bought, a dress soiled or unbrushed, a bonnet bent out of form, or a collar worn the wrong side out. All these circumstances arise from negligence or idleness, and an economical person is well aware that clothes last twice as long when they are well taken care of.131

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A patched garment was a badge of industry. Women also needed to know how to extend the lifespan of a dress by adapting or ‘turning’ a dress to disguise stains, refit them or update their look by remodelling the sleeves or skirt or adding new trims. Among the genteel, such skills were a sign of the economy of decency, as Australian dress historian Lorinda Cramer writes, rather than of necessity.132 As the daughter of a missionary, Laura Taylor also helped her mother make clothes for the local Māori school children, and passed her needlework skills and English on to the girls – and the occasional boy – through regular classes.133 On Monday 18 April 1853, Laura recorded that she and her mother inspected the children’s work at school and, like Marianne Williams, ‘rewarded them with thimbles, needles & bags’.134 Bowman described ‘A needle in the hands of an industrious woman’ as ‘the wand of the fairy Order, converting rags and wretchedness into neatness and comfort’.135 The rewards bestowed in the missionary schools were gifts for a young girl’s future as an industrious Christian wife and mother.


omen of all classes, young and old, were expected to contribute to the running of the household with their needlework skills, making sheets, curtains and everyday necessities, but some women also used their needles to supplement the family income. Catherine Ralfe (1832–1912), who was born in County Cork, Ireland, was raised in England by her aunt and uncle, for whom she kept house. In 1866, at the age of 34, she decided to join her brother Henry and his growing family in Lyttelton. On her arrival, she found the family living hand to mouth. In order to contribute to the household, Catherine began ‘tatting collarettes & so forth, from early morning to bed-time’, for her sister-in-law Annie to sell through her circle of friends.136 She was soon ‘advised to ask for work at a kind of draper’s shop kept by a Mrs Black in Colombo Street’: I went there & showing me a silk mantle she asked me if I could make one like

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Needlework skills and well-equipped sewing kits were central to women’s lives. The missionaries rewarded their pupils with ‘thimbles, needles & bags’ for good behaviour and quality work. The items shown here include two sewing kits, a tape measure in the form of a miniature mirror (top left), a needle case, a thread holder and pin cushions.

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it? I said I would try ‘that won’t do, it must be yes or no’ she said, whereupon I said ‘yes’; my attempt met with approbation & from that time she kept me supplied with as much work as I could do.137

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Thankfully, Catherine’s uncle had given her a sewing machine when she left England, making it possible for her to take on such work. As well as working for Mrs Black, Catherine attracted private clients such as Charlotte Jacobs, whose husband was the Very Reverend Henry Jacobs, the first Dean of Christchurch.138 When the Ralfes acquired a boarder, Catherine was able to give up the work – which was just as well, as she fell ill for a time. In 1867, when Henry Ralfe found work as a teacher in the small gold town of Ōkārito on the West Coast, Catherine picked up her needle once more. Detained in Hokitika for three weeks, she sought work at a ‘nice looking draper shop – for a digger township’.139 The foreman agreed to give her ‘some flannels to make’, but only if she had a machine as he could not pay her for her time, and only sevenpence per shirt. ‘I said I could not get at my machine but even doing them by hand would be better than nothing, so he gave me material for two, & a pattern to go by.’ Impressed by the quality of Catherine’s sewing, the foreman gave her eightpence per shirt, and supplied her with work for the remainder of her stay in Hokitika. As Henry’s teaching salary in Ōkārito had only been guaranteed for three months, Catherine ‘again made it known that I was willing to do needlework’.140 She found no difficulty attracting work, and ‘before long was asked to make a dress’. Once more she ‘demurred having never learnt’.141 Unlike Mary Swainson and Laura Taylor, who were confidently making their own clothes by their teen years, Catherine had obviously grown up in a family who could afford to have their clothes made professionally. As she had with Mrs Black and the mantle, however, Catherine now rose to the challenge of the dress: ‘I was told if I would not try, it must be sent to Hokitika, so with fear and trembling I consented. I gave satisfaction & got more, till at last I was fully employed in this way, though I charged 25/- for making a silk dress, lining and everything being supplied to me.’142 When Catherine moved to Five Mile Beach, just south of Ōkārito, for a few months to teach at a small school, she continued to take in needlework, ‘doing it before & after school hours’ to help make ends meet.143 Later in life she would also work as a housekeeper and storekeeper, and throughout all her ability with a needle and thread continued to provide her with an additional income stream. Having been constantly challenged to extend her needlework skills beyond plain sewing and fancy work to clothing, Catherine also admired others’ ability with a needle. During her time at Five Mile Beach she befriended Joseph and Mary Ann

Mary Ann and Joseph Jewell, who were shipwrecked off the Auckland Islands in 1866, model their sealskin clothes.

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Jewell (née Hewitt), a couple from Victoria, Australia, who had been on the General Grant when it was wrecked off the Auckland Islands in May 1866 en route to London with a valuable cargo of wool, hides and gold. The Jewells and eight others were rescued in November 1867, and landed in Bluff in January the following year. Mary Ann and James Teer, a miner, fashioned sealskin garments for the survivors, using needles carved from albatross bone with a penknife. Catherine marvelled at Mary Ann’s clothes: ‘I saw the garments in which she landed in New Zealand . . . [they] consisted of a gored skirt, & dainty jacket, with a natty little cap, & shoes with the fur towards the feet; she also had an undergarment with the fur turned inside for the cold was great; all these were very neatly sewn.’144 The Jewells lost the fortune they had massed in the Victorian goldfields in the disaster, but they found a profitable use for Mary Ann’s unique clothes. She is said to have earned as much as £600 delivering lectures about the ordeal while dressed in her sealskin outfit.145




ethia Featherston (née Scott, 1816–1864), who arrived in New Zealand on the Olympus in 1841, also needed to take in sewing in order to support her family. But unlike Catherine Ralfe, who was a single woman and dependent on her wider family, Bethia was married. Her husband was Dr Isaac Featherston, a successful and respected doctor and newspaper editor who was elected as Superintendent of Wellington Province in 1853. Although he was ‘honoured and esteemed by all’, he was ‘poor in worldly wealth’.146 In June 1853, just two months after giving birth to twin daughters, Bethia confessed to her brother Andrew that their ‘income had not yet settled’ and she did not expect ‘that we will be richer’: . . . as the Doctor now has very extensive ideas of hospitality, and with seven daughters to provide for and the famine prices of provisions I do not feel that I shall be able to throw the stitching down so that Kate and I must continue our Song of the Shirt: ‘Seam and gusset and bands, Bands and gusset and seam, Till over the buttons I fall asleep, And sew them on in a dream’.147

Bethia was quoting from Thomas Hood’s popular and highly emotive poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’, first published in the English satirical magazine Punch in 1843. In his poem, Hood represents the seamstress as a solitary figure dressed ‘in unwomanly rags’, with ‘fingers weary and worn’ and ‘eyelids heavy and red’, Plying her needle and thread – Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang the ‘Song of the Shirt.’ 148

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Above Richard Redgrave was one of many artists inspired by Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’. When Redgrave exhibited the first version of this painting at the Royal Academy in London in 1846, it was accompanied by the following lines: ‘Oh! Men with sister’s dear/Oh! men with mothers and wives,/It is not linen you’re wearing out,/But human creatures’ lives’.

Left Bethia Featherston (left), shown in this photograph with Dr Andrew Sinclair and Jessie Crawford, helped support her family through dressmaking.

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Hood’s vision of the lonely seamstress became a symbol of the exploitation of vulnerable working-class women. She was also a popular figure among English artists and writers, with many authors presenting sensationalised tales of the needlewoman’s ‘degradation from respectable poverty to penury, illness, and sometimes even prostitution’.149 In 1849, Sidney Herbert, the British Secretary at War, established the charitable Fund for Promoting Female Emigration to Australia in response to stories in the English press about the terrible conditions suffered by London’s needleworkers – long hours, extremely poor working conditions, and low wages. Bethia, of course, quoted the poem for dramatic effect. She was not working class, but the relentless nature of sewing for both her growing family and her paying customers was obviously exhausting. Bethia sewed for women within the social circle that she and her husband inhabited.150 In the 1850s, she sent a note to her friend Marian Smith (née Wallace, 1821–1859) requesting help with her workload. Marian’s father, John Wallace, a well-known artist, was a member of the Wellington Provincial Council and a good friend of Bethia’s husband.151 Bethia not only had to finish a muslin frock for her young daughter Laetitia to wear to ‘Lady Grey’s Ball’, but she had also just received an order from Mrs Wakefield for a dress to wear to ‘Mrs Clifford’s Ball’, which was to take place in just two days’ time. Bethia explained to Marian that she could not refuse Mrs Wakefield: . . . as I am her Milliner in ordinary & she is one of my great favourites. It will take me the greater part of today & I do not like to leave so much to be done the day of the Ball. I am therefore going to ask you to assist me – I have actually sent the skirt of the dress I thought tucks so much more simple and childlike than flounces that I have cut it for a hem and 2 tucks. I have sent the 4 cut lengths & if you can do it for me you can add one more kindness to the long list I have already received . . . The ball is Thursday so tomorrow is quite time enough.152

It appears that she was asking Marian to finish Laetitia’s dress so that she could focus on Mrs Wakefield’s ball dress, for which she had also made a number of undergarments because she couldn’t bear to see dresses worn over ‘inferior petticoats’.153 The women to whom Bethia referred in her note to Marian were probably Angela Wakefield, the wife of Daniel Wakefield, the Attorney General, and Mary Ann Clifford, whose husband Charles was the first speaker of the Wellington Provincial Council.


homas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ and Sidney Herbert’s emigration fund were both responses to what the British historian Thomas Carlyle described in 1839 as ‘The English Condition Question’, a reference to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the working classes and the growing division between rich

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and poor. Increasingly, migration came to be seen as an opportunity for a better life. Millions of people left Great Britain during the nineteenth century with the aim of improving their prospects in Canada, the United States, Australia and eventually New Zealand.154 In order to attract settlers to the most far-flung outpost of the Empire, the New Zealand Company promoted the country as ‘a Britain of the South’ free of starvation, class war and overcrowded cities, and blessed with fertile lands and a benign, healthy climate.155 Emigration to the colonies was also mooted during the 1850s as a solution for ‘redundant women’ – that is, unmarried women, who could become useful wives in a colony short of women. Herbert established a special emigration programme to enable needlewomen to immigrate to Australia, and needlewomen of all types were also among the New Zealand Company’s passengers. In April 1840 the company published a ‘classified list of immigrants brought out at the expense of the Colony of New Zealand’ in the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator.156 Five single dressmakers had arrived in Wellington on the Cuba, two on the Oriental, and six on the Duke of Roxburgh. In November of that year, twelve ‘sempstresses’ (another term for seamstresses) arrived in Wellington on the Martha Ridgway at the expense of the Port Nicholson settlement. Another fifteen arrived in December on the London.157 In May 1841 a further twelve arrived.158 By the middle of 1843, the settlement of Nelson alone had welcomed fifty-nine women who listed their occupation as seamstress or dressmaker, including the mother and daughter duo of forty-five-year-old Rebecca Burns and her sixteen-yearold daughter Elizabeth. The Bolton arrived in Nelson on 15 March 1842 with eleven young sempstresses, who ranged in age from fourteen to eighteen.159 Boot and shoe makers, lace makers, hosiery manufacturers and other craftspeople vital to the clothing industry also arrived at ports around the country. Mary Taylor (1817–1893) was a single woman who arrived in Wellington on the Louisa Campbell on 24 July 1845, aged twenty-eight. She, however, had no intention of becoming a colonial wife or plying the needle; rather, she had decided to emigrate in order to avoid such a fate. On learning of Mary’s decision to emigrate, one of her best friends, the novelist Charlotte Brontë, wrote to her sister: ‘Mary has made up her mind she can not and will not be a governess, a teacher, a milliner, a bonnetmaker, nor housemaid. She sees no means of obtaining employment she would like in England, so she is leaving it.’160 Despite being born into a politically radical family in Yorkshire – she described her house as one of ‘violent dissent and radicalism’161 – Mary was still expected to live within the crippling confines of middle-class respectability, in which a lady’s hours were filled with what she viewed as ‘useless’ work invented solely to keep idleness at bay.162 Mary’s ambitious spirit rebelled against both marriage and the prospect of living with her repressive mother following the death of her father. She wanted to live a useful, independent life, and in order to achieve freedom she knew she would have to both earn and control her own money – the Marriage Act of 1753 had removed

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women’s rights over their children, matrimonial property and money.163 Mary’s brother Waring left for Wellington in 1842, but Mary headed to Europe. Despite her declaration that she would not teach, she accepted a position at a boys’ school in Hagen, Germany. Charlotte considered her decision to teach ‘boys, or rather young men’ as opposed to girls, to be far from ‘prudent’.164 When news reached her home town that she was also going to live alone, another friend proposed to ‘cut’ her.165 In March 1845, Mary boarded a ship for Wellington, where Waring had established a shop and import agency using the family’s business connections. The Taylors were textile manufacturers in Gomersal, in West Yorkshire, then known as the Heavy Woollen District, producing blankets, carpets, worsted yarns and heavy cloth. Their products included woollen cloth dyed red for army uniforms, garments that tragically would become a common sight in New Zealand in the 1850s.166 In Wellington, Mary lived with Waring until he married in 1848, and then briefly lodged with his new in-laws. She helped him in the business, taught pianoforte, worked as a governess in Porirua for a short period of time, bought and sold cattle, and built a house for which she received twelve shillings a week in rent from her tenants. Like Charlotte, Mary also had literary aspirations. In April 1849 she wrote to her friend: ‘I write at my novel a little & think of my other book . . . It is my child, my baby & I assure you such a wonder as never was. I intend him when full grown to revolutionise society & faire époque in history. In the meantime I’m doing a collar in crochet work.’167 When her cousin Ellen Taylor (1826–1851), who had ‘just the same wish to earn her living as I have and just the same objection to sedentary empl[oy]ment’, arrived in Wellington in August 1849, the two women hatched a new plan to make money.168 ‘Mary and I settled we would do something together, and we talked for a fortnight before we decided whether we would have a school or shop; it ended in favour of the shop,’ Ellen wrote in a letter.169 Mary borrowed money from her brothers in England to lease some land on the corner of Dixon and Cuba Streets, and Ellen paid for a small two-storey house to be built to their own design. The shop was on the ground floor, their living quarters above. Waring schooled the cousins in bookkeeping and making wholesale purchases, something for which Ellen noted Mary had a natural flair: Mary gets as fierce as a dragon and goes to all the wholesale stores and looks at things, gets patterns, samples, etc., and asks prices, and then comes home,

Above Mary Taylor and Ellen Taylor built their store and home on the corner of Cuba and Dixon streets in the fledging town of Wellington in 1849. Its subsequent purchaser, James Smith, renamed the store Te Aro House.

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Below Kirkcaldie & Stains was founded in 1863 by John Kirkcaldie and Robert Stains, whose first store was in the hulk known as Plimmer’s Noah’s Ark, on Lambton Quay. They moved to Waterloo House, also on Lambton Quay, in December 1863, building a new store there in 1865 before relocating to the corner of Lambton Quay and Brandon Street in 1868.

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and we talk it over; and then she goes again and buys what we want. She says the people are always civil to her – Our keeping shop astonishes every body here; I believe they think we do it for fun, some think we shall make nothing of it, or that we shall get tired; and all laugh at us. Before I left home I used to be afraid of being laughed at, but now it has very little effect upon me.170

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The cousins sold dry goods, drapery and haberdashery, and took turns week about, one working in the shop and doing the accounts while the other attended to household duties.171 As they were establishing their business, Mary came to read excerpts of Charlotte’s latest novel, Shirley, in which she talked about ‘women working’.172 Charlotte had based the character of Rose Yorke, who argues that migration and employment are a pathway to female freedom, on Mary, but the real Mary was not impressed by what she read, and rebuked Charlotte for being ‘a coward and a traitor’ for her attitude towards work and women.173 She criticised her friend for seeming to think that work was only an activity that ‘some women may indulge in’ – namely poor spinsters. Mary counter-argued: ‘A woman who works is by that alone better than one who does not and a woman who does not happen to be rich and who still earns no money and does not wish to do so, is guilty of a great fault – almost a crime.’174 Mary’s own novel-in-progress, Miss Miles, which would not be published until 1890, focused on four female characters, all of whom strive to secure their independence through employment.175


hen Ellen died of tuberculosis in December 1851, Mary carried on the business, gaining confidence with each year. In 1857 she proudly informed her friend Ellen Nussey: ‘I look after my shopwoman, make out bills, decide who shall have “trust” and who not. Then I go a-buying, not near such an anxious piece of business now that I understand my trade, and have, moreover, a good “credit”.’176 She sourced merchandise from local warehouses, and received parcels of goods from family and friends to on-sell, just as Grace Hirst, who Mary knew from Yorkshire, was to do.177 Mary, who had grown up in a household ruled by economy, had little interest in fashion or finery herself.178 Despite owning a drapery store, she was always grateful when her friends saved her ‘the trouble and responsibility of dressing myself ’ by sending her readymade dresses and a supply of bonnets, some of which she deemed too good for her and on-sold.179 As a storekeeper, and an acute observer of human nature, however, she delighted in the power fashion held over her customers. In a letter to Ellen Nussey she wrote: I always find myself wondering at these people with one eye while I wait on them with the other. It gives them such evident pain to see anything they can’t buy, and it’s so impossible for [them] not to look at the most expensive things,

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even when they can’t buy any but the cheapest. Then the tricks they play on their husbands’ head or heart or purse, to get the money! And then the coolness with [which] they’ll say they don’t care a bit about it only thought they might as well have it! There are some silk mantles coming about which more lies will be told than would make a lawyer’s fortune; to me, their husbands’ friends and neighbours. Don’t think all my customers answer to this description. Yet it’s wonderful how many do.180

In 1858, Mary decided to return to Yorkshire. The following year she sold her shop to her employee Margaret Smith and her sister Susan, who were also intent on earning an independent living. Following her return to Yorkshire in 1860 as a financially independent woman, Mary dedicated herself to writing, contributing essays to The Victoria Magazine, a journal dedicated to promoting women’s rights. Despite having profited from women’s engagement in fashion, she wrote a critique of the wife’s duty to keep up ‘appearances’, especially among the ‘uneasy classes’.181 In 1865, however, back in Mary Taylor’s former colonial home, the seat of government was about to move from Auckland to Wellington, and keeping up appearances in fashionable society would become all the more important. 63 Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!

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DRESSED: FASHIONABLE DRESS IN AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND 1840 TO 1910 Claire Regnault RRP: $70.00 ISBN: 978-0-9941460-6-9 PUBLISHED: May 20201 PAGE EXTENT: 440 pages FORMAT: Hardback SIZE: 190 x 250 mm

FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO ORDER https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/about/te-papa-press/history-books/dressed

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