Claire Regnault discusses her new book on 19th century fashion in Aotearoa

Claire Regnault Dressed book

Author Claire Regnault. Image by Maarten Holl, Te Papa.

While you can pick up any local fashion magazine or browse Instagram to find out more about today’s fashion, the clothing of 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand was a lot less accessible until the recent publication of a new book that brings it to life. Dressed: Fashionable dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910 by Claire Regnault was published last month by Te Papa Press and is an incredible journey through 19th century and early 20th century fashion. It was the perfect project for Claire who is a Senior Curator New Zealand Culture and History at Te Papa and has worked as a curator in the art gallery and museum sector since 1994. Her passion for our country’s fascinating  fashion history has led to a richly illustrated book with over 300 photographs that explores the creation, consumption and spectacle of fashionable dress in Aotearoa New Zealand.

We caught up with Claire to find out more about her new book, what the process was like of creating it and what her favourite story from it is?

Where did the idea for Dressed: Fashionable dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910 come from?
In 2010 I published a book with Lucy Hammonds and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins called The Dress Circle which focused on New Zealand’s fashion design history from 1940 to the mid-2000s. Dressed is a ‘prequel’!

Around the time The Dress Circle was published, I moved to Te Papa and suddenly had access to a wonderful dress collection. As I got to know the collection, I saw an opportunity to develop on a book on 19th / early 20th century dress shaped by extant garments.  

What was the process like of researching and curating the book?
An exciting adventure through the country’s collections and archives, looking for garments and related stories. It was wonderful to handle a range of beautiful garments, and a great pleasure to spend time in the company of so many amazing women from our past through their letters and diaries. The creation of the book itself was an exercise in piecing together a whole lot of fragments – information gleaned from a bodice, a line or two in a letter, an advertisement – to create a larger narrative.

How was clothing design and production different in the period of Dressed to today?
Clothing was generally bespoke – that is specifically made for the person who wore it. Women were also arguably more personally engaged in the creation of their clothes. Even if they didn’t actually sew their own clothes, they still often selected the fabrics and trimmings and worked closely with a dress maker on the design.

Each of the garments featured in Dressed has a story behind it, why was it important to you to discover and share those stories?
Personal stories help bring life and context to garments – without them they are simply examples of style or type. In particular, I wanted to highlight women’s experiences and histories.

Claire Regnault Dressed book

Sophia Anstice established her first dressmaking business in Karamea on the West Coast in 1876 and took over Mode de Paris in Nelson in 1886. She subsequently bought land and opened her own purpose-built emporium and expanded throughout the region, opening branches in Tākaka, Motueka, Murchison and Blenheim. (Nelson Provincial Museum).

How does clothing help tell the story of what Aotearoa was like at the time?
Clothing touches every aspect of our lives, and as such offers a fascinating lens through which to explore numerous aspects of our history, including the impact of colonisation on both Māori and Pākeha modes of dress, the development of business and trade, cultural and social mores and gender roles. While our fashion history has many similarities with others, it is also unique.

Nineteenth century garments must be very fragile by now and there are many photographed in the book, what was the process like of photographing them and who was involved in the production?
Time consuming and rewarding! At Te Papa we are lucky to have a textile conservation department, the members of which worked hard to support weakened waistbands and disintegrating silk linings etc. They then passed the garments into the talented hands of Samantha Gatley, who specialises in costume mounting. She created bespoke made forms and underpinnings for each garment to ensure that we had the right silhouette and look. The garments are generally so small, that we couldn’t use standard 21st century dress forms – they are too broad in the shoulders, and their waists are not tiny or round enough!

Once mounted they were then wheeled off to the photography studio, where under the right lighting they really come to life.

Claire Regnault Dressed book

Object preparator Sam Gatley stitches the neck cap of a Ballantynes gown shown on onto a dress form. (Maarten Holl, Te Papa).

What’s your favourite garment and story from Dressed?
I have many favourites – but one in particular is what is known as a red satin ‘poster dress’ dating from 1908 held in Canterbury Museum. Poster dresses relate to a particular type of fancy dress event popular in the early twentieth century, where people dressed in garments that advertised products – in this case the Canterbury Times. The dress was made by Miss Munro who worked for the Christchurch department store Strange & Co.  The red satin is printed with the front page of the newspaper and the layers of calico underneath have been printed with a page from the paper. Elements of the dress are held together with split pins – the sort of pins usually associated with paper filing –  and as such carry on the theme of a busy, productive newspaper office. It’s an elegant and witty example of a ‘press dress’.

Claire Regnault Dressed book

Miss Munro of Strange & Co made this prize-winning newspaper costume for the Canterbury Times in 1908. (Canterbury Museum).

What do you hope readers will learn from the book?
That our history is teeming with fascinating women – both ‘ordinary’ and extraordinary, and that clothing can provide a great lens through which to explore history.

How would you describe your personal style and who are your favourite New Zealand designers?
These days, probably comfortable minimalism with a dash of colour – as such I gravitate to designers like Nom D*, Jimmy D and Jason Lingard and I am watching Meghan James Brown. Work-wise I am intrigued by the integrity and inventiveness of 6 X 4.

What are you reading right at the moment?
I have been binge reading Agatha Christie novels since December – the ones set in the 1920s and 30s are my favourites – and in more serious moments I am reading Material Lives: Women Makers and Consumer Culture in the 18th Century – a book on ‘the power of needles, paintbrushes and scissors’ in women’s lives.

Dressed: Fashionable dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910 by Claire Regnault, published by Te Papa Press, is available in all good bookstores now. You can also enter the draw to win a copy.

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