The Dress Circle

By Adrienne Rewi

Before 1940, New Zealand was a nation of home sewers and imported fashion styles but then, our own independent fashion designers began to emerge. You can now read all about our colourful fashion design journey in The Dress Circle, an exquisitely illustrated book co-authored by three New Zealand museum professionals:  Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, director of Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery, Claire Regnault, Senior Curator at The Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa and Lucy Hammonds, curator at Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery. 

Garments from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection plays a starring role in The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design since 1940, a book that spreads itself over seven decades of creative endeavour. All three authors have been closely involved with the museum’s fashion and textiles collection – Claire Regnault formerly worked as a curator at HBMAG and Douglas and Lucy are both currently based there – and many of the garments photographed in the book, showcase the diversity and quality of the museum’s own collection.

The writing/curating trio – all with extensive experience in fashion and textiles – spent many hours fossicking in photoarchives, delving into records, leafing through old magazines and interviewing key players to capture the full, rich story, which for many, will be a walk down memory lane. They relate the glamorous days of exclusive fashion parades in department stores like Milne & Choyce, Smith & Caughey, Kirkaldie & Staines and Ballantynes; they introduce early labels like El Jay and Miss Deb moving through the years to Annie Bonza, Hullabaloo and Zephyr; and they catalogue the achievements of current high-street favourites Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, Zambesi, the Crane brothers and the like.



The authors have ‘lifted the skirts’ of New Zealand fashion to reveal a tantalising collection of characters and personalities – a couturiere who ran the infamous Ring Terrace brothel; Kiwi men baulking at the loss of cuff turn-ups during war-time rationing; the fashion impresario who was spat on in Queen Street for her “provocative” dress sense; and one of our greatest All Blacks, who had his own women’s fashion label. I always find those stories about the people, those everyday vignettes in any industry or profession the most engaging. They shine a light on people, places and professions and give us a far deeper understanding of the business in question.

Lloyd-Jenkins, Regnault and Hammonds have left no stone unturned and for all the personable, amusing anecdotes there is an equal weight of scholarship. They’ve deftly explored the fashion industry inside out, always putting it into the broader social and commercial context. There is discussion centred on the emergence of our design-led clothing industry, the creative processes of design and the knowledge, methods and circumstances of production that has produced the goods. Everything is there – written into this handsome fat volume that unbuttons ‘a rich history of sharp business, textile production, colourful personalities, pioneering designers, government policies, radical reforms, the rag-trade communities, the fashion awards that make up our very distinctive fashion design culture. The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940 is published by Random House New Zealand (Godwit).


 All Photographs supplied by Random House New Zealand.

1: The book – Front Jacket

2: Emma Knuckley’s early collections betrayed the influence of the London line with large collars and geometric forms. However, she did better than most in the early 1950s in achieving classic styles with longevity. Deborah and Mark Smith, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Ta-u-Rangi

3: Left: Blue Fashionbilt dress by Fashions Ltd; Deborah and Mark Smith, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust; Right: 1970s cocktail dress by Vinka Lewis. Deborah and Mark Smith, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

4. Left: Maxi-dress by Annie Bonza featuring her signature use of cornelli embroidery. C.1970. Deborah and Mark Smith, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust; Right: Bobby Angus cotton shirt, 1950. Deborah and Mark Smith, Collection of Hawke’s bay Museums Trust.

5: This Babs Radon cocktail dress, c.1965, was worn by Barbara Penberthy, its designer. Deborah and Mark Smith, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Adrienne RewiAdrienne Rewi works full-time as a freelance journalist, sub-editor, blogger and travel guide writer. When she is not traveling the length and breadth of New Zealand updating travel guides, she is based in Christchurch where she readily gives in to her passion for art, museums, photography and fiction writing. In addition to publishing several non-fiction books and travel guides, photographing everything in sight and writing on almost every subject, she is a passionate collector of far too many things and really needs her own museum.

1 Comment

  1. In the course of your research, did you find out what happened to Bobby Angus?? Apparently she remarried and moved to USA. She is a relation of mine and i\’m trying to track her and her children down,

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