1930s Fashion in Auckland, New Zealand
by Caitlin Kilpatrick*
“It is always being dinned into our ears that New Zealand women are among the worst dressed in the world.”
Auckland provides an exciting insight into the fashion of the 1930s when considering this perspective – that New Zealand women were perceived as having no fashion sense. Through the 1930s, Auckland held its position as the fashion centre of New Zealand. The fashion scene was still dominated by six key department stores: Rendells, George Courts, Farmers’ Trading Company, Milne and Choyce, John Court, and Smith and Caughey. If the 1920s marked the beginning of modern fashion and an ever-moving trend cycle, the 1930s was the acceleration of these. As women continued their entry into the workforce, fashion variety increased. Discussion around skirt lengths and silhouettes dominated popular fashion ideas during the decade.
The Issue of the Hemline:
The most debated fashion topic of the 1930s was skirt hems. As soon as the 1930s hit, hemlines fell closer to the ground, marking an unprecedented shift from the shrinking hemlines of the 1920s.
The 1920s had marked a new era of women’s liberation. The 1920s were an open, more liberal period of time compared to the past. However, the 1930s took a step back, almost rebelling against the previous liberalism, back towards a conservative attitude. This was accompanied by the crashing economy. There was no more risk-taking attitude in the general population anymore.
Women worldwide were shocked by the news that hemlines were becoming longer again. They had enjoyed the freedom that shorter skirts facilitated and did not want to be thrown back into older ideals of fully covered legs. The Mirror magazine (the main magazine for Auckland women) discussed the shock this created, that “a year or two ago few women would admit that fashion would again demand long skirts.”
Hemline growth caused a sense of unease in the fashion world, while there was urging for “a war against the dictates of Paris,” where men primarily made the fashion decisions. This marked the beginning of varying ideas on where fashion trends should come from – with some continuing to argue in favour of fashion designers, while others claimed that fashion decisions should come from women. A 1931 New Zealand Herald article argued the latter – praising women for not allowing “manufacturers, fashion creators, or any other members of the male community” to dictate their fashion choices.
Interestingly, short skirts were seen as better for health than long skirts. The Sun emphasised this idea when it became clear that skirts were getting longer again. Long skirts carry bacteria “introduced into our homes by the million,” while short skirts are “desirable as it enables the sun rays to penetrate the skin.” Apparently, it was “much more advisable for [women] to sin against the dictates of fashion than to sin against the laws of health.”
While debate raged on the length of hemlines, fashion adjusted to a longer ideal. The “ascent of waist – descent of jewellery” marked the general trend of the early 1930s. This explained that as hemlines grew longer, jewellery also became longer, while waistlines became higher. This combined to create the unique silhouette of the 1930s.
However, change did continue throughout the decade. Later in the 1930s, skirts began to “creep up too insidiously” once again as Auckland edged closer to the Second World War. This marked the ever-changing fashion ideas of the time.
Fashion silhouettes also were marked by interesting and unusual contrasts. Different women had different intentions in their clothing choices, with some wanting to “look positively girlish and feel fundamentally dangerous” and others aiming for “smart and simple” or “picturesque and effortlessly feminine.”
Silhouettes changed significantly during from the 1920s to the 1930s. The “rigid, straight line” of the 1920s was gone, in favour of a more moulded silhouette, emphasising a thin waist and broad shoulders. For ‘smart’ women, the “shoulder line [was] accentuated with padding and stiffening,” while hips were also emphasised. These and the common high-waisted style combined to create an hourglass silhouette. The 1930s saw the beginning of the hourglass figure being the key to fashion. The Mirror discussed the “new types of corsets to control any undesirable features in figures” and the understanding that each woman had a different figure that she had to learn how to accentuate and minimise in the right places.
Other aspects of women’s fashion, such as hats and sportswear, contributed to the overall image of style being projected by these women. Women in the 1930s still wore hats everywhere.
Hats for everyday wear were smaller and simpler, but it was necessary to “watch that jaunty angle” to ensure that they were being worn in the most fashionable way possible. Hats had to be worn tilted as this was what the fashion at the time dictated, the unique shapes and styles necessitated a unique angle as well. Brims grew on some hats, but others shrunk closer to the head, providing great variety in the going-out hats.
Sports clothing was very different from regular clothing and was one of the many things advertised in department store catalogues. Clothing worn for sporting purposes was – more than anything else in this time period – similar to what is worn today. Skirts were shorter in sports clothing, and in this context, women were allowed to have exposed arms. There was still a significant lack of trousers on women – their practicality for day-to-day wear had not been recognised – or maybe had not yet been endorsed by Paris.
Bringing Paris to Auckland:
Throughout the 1930s, Linda Anivitti wrote an exclusive column for the Mirror each month, detailing what she had seen in fashion while living in Paris. She was the key fashion correspondent, allowing New Zealand women to keep up-to-date with the grand fashion centres. There was a much wider range of fashion available in France, so Auckland women took this advice and applied it to their slightly more limited resources. In the 1920s, news of summer fashion was being received in winter, but the 1930s saw this fixed, with Anivitti pre-writing her letters for them to be received in the correct season. These letters would be written during European winter (December-February) and then not published until New Zealand winter (June-August). Importantly, there was also a new understanding that the fashion seen in Paris was not realistic for the every-day woman, as they are “too extreme for any sane-minded woman to wear.” For most women, “the secret of always being smartly dressed [was] to make sure that her clothes are neat and trim, that they are made of good materials and not too extreme in style.” This was different from the slightly more extreme looks that were seen modelled in Paris.
Before the 1930s, catwalk fashion and everyday fashion were more similar. The 1930s saw a divergence of these two types of fashion, dividing models from everyday women. This compares interestingly to the 21st Century, in which the fashion of the runways is completely different from what women wear on the streets.
The Mirror also had a running pattern service through the 1930s. Each month, knitting and crochet patterns were free of charge in the pages of the magazine, while women could send in to receive sewing patterns. These patterns contained the most fashionable styles in a way accessible to even the home dress-maker. This pattern service was one of the most important ways that the fashion of Europe became available to Auckland women. Anivitti, the author of the ‘Paris Fashion Letters,’ had a part in designing these patterns, ensuring they were ‘in vogue.’ The department stores of Auckland usually had all of the fabrics and trimmings needed to make these dresses a reality.
Auckland department stores continued to import their fashion from all over the globe. Miss D. Bacchus, a fashion expert and buyer for Milne and Choyce, detailed the boxes “bursting with new creations that will make Auckland women sit up.” These boxes were “labelled with the magic names of London, Paris, Berlin and New York.” John Court Limited, positioned on Queen Street, promoted their “intriguing costumes and other ensembles” from England and Europe. Smith and Caughey also emphasised their links with Europe through advertising, as they had buyers working for them in the fashion centres of the Western World.
Despite this idea of European fashion being central to style, Farmers’ took a different approach. 65% of their clothes were manufactured in New Zealand, highlighted in their advertisements, discussing that the goal was to “demonstrate New Zealand workmanship.” 83% of the goods imported were British due to New Zealand’s significant ties with Britain. Farmers’ catalogues continued to play a pivotal role in spreading fashion ideas to people before they came to the shops. These catalogues echoed the popular fashion trends of long straight skirts, wide-shouldered and collared blazers, and pleats and patterns, all while providing their guarantees and price satisfaction claims to customers. Rendells again took a different approach, advertising “Fashions Hollywood Inspired.” This shows fashion’s slow but steady departure from Europe-focused to America-focused.
Through the different department stores having varying locations from which their clothes were received, this meant a wide range of fashion was exhibited, allowing every women to have her own fashion style.
The experience of department store fashion remained a key selling point through the 1930s. By the early 1930s Farmers’ had their own banking department, children’s playground, free parking (the first of its kind), and free customer bus.
Department stores, such as Milne and Choyce and Farmers’, continued with their fashion shows, known as ‘mannequin parades.’ Fashion experts would attend these events, giving talks on fashion to advise women on what to wear.
Other stores capitalised on being affordable. George Court was one of these, boasting that they were content with small profits so kept their prices low. They had “every garment priced in just that reasonable manner that made this firm so favourably known,” showing that they understood their position as an approachable fashion destination. At the same time, John Court discussed their combination of “beauty to utility, economy to luxuriousness,” in a way that made them seem a desirable, one-stop shopping location.
The 1930s saw discussions of trend cycles. While there had been trends in the 1920s, they had not been discussed as cyclical in the same way that the 1930s noted them. One theory was that of a 20-year cycle. The fashion of 1931, for example, was compared to the fashion of 1911, with the Mirror stating that “except for the bodice, a gown of 1911 might be seen in any ballroom of today.” Yet other aspects of fashion, such as the bowler hats, tilted hats, and favouritism of black and white colours on clothing, sent fashion “back to 1860.” The Mirror noted that “it is interesting to see how Fashion repeats herself over and over again.” It is interesting to ponder the similarity to nowadays. If fashion was already seen as a repetitive cycle 90 years ago – what on earth would they think of our clothing choices today?
Discussion also revolved around the colours that were in and out. As a historian, I despair at the fact that most photographs from this period are black and white as I am unable to see these rich colours myself.
One discussion from the New Zealand Herald concerned the theory that fashionable colours ran on an 11-year cycle. The author theorised that as people tire of one colour, they move to its opposite for something new, using the example of a dislike of khaki following World War I facilitating a shift to blue being the most popular colour. 1933 saw an emphasis on bright colours – “rose beige, orange red, dusty rose, poppy glow, Spanish orange and lupin blue.” This was because “colour contrast [was] so much in vogue,” so wide ranges of colours were seen everywhere to appeal to this trend. Patterns were also ‘in’ during the 1930s. Polka dots, checks, flowers, gingham and more were everywhere as early as 1931.
Similar to the 1920s, the 1930s saw events such as the Ellerslie Races becoming fashion hotspots. The department stores took the opportunity to capitalise off this, with Milne and Choyce advertising their clothing for this event: “Go smartly to the races in an M&C ensemble.” These races acted as fashion shows – places where you could see interesting hats and lots of fur, but also more common styles, with the skirts hitting below the mid-calf and being heavily pleated.
While the 1930s were a distinct time period for fashion, there were wide ranges of clothing throughout it. Despite the pre-conceived notion that Auckland women were not the most stylish in the world, they used all of their available resources to attempt to be as fashionable as possible. With magazines with links to Paris, and department stores shipping in clothing from all over the world, this meant that Auckland was a significant gateway through to the wider world of fashion. From the end of the 1930s, fashion began to change even more. The end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s brought with them the threat of World War II. This caused immense and significant disruption across the world – including fashion.