New Zealand in the 1960s was rather behind Europe in many ways, including fashion. As teenagers we often tried to emulate our mothers and the posher the occasion the truer this was. We still made most of our clothes, though. I think the fact that it was a society where you could wear cotton dresses much of the time was a help, especially when you could add ‘puffy’ petticoats to make the skirts stick out. These were made of something very stiff – I am not sure what. Another difference between NZ and Europe was that new fashions still took some time to reach our end of the world. This made it easier for us because the dressmaking patterns were as up-to-date as the ready-made clothes. I remember being surprised when I arrived in England to find that it was not always possible to find patterns for the latest styles in the shops. The photo below illustrates the cotton dresses and was taken in 1954.
The choice of fabric available was very great and it became something of a ritual to go Friday night shopping (the shops were all closed on Saturday but stayed open till 9pm on Fridays) and choose patterns, fabric and haberdashery for garments that you them made up over the weekend. I have friends who talk about making a dress on Saturday to wear on Saturday evening. Other garments that were central to our style included white button to the neck cardigans and short white gloves that we wore to church and when going to town. Jewellery was important but cheap and I can remember lots of necklaces made from ‘knitted’ plastic or 'poppit' plastic beads as you can see in the photo below. You can also see the effect of the 'puffy petticoar' on my dress and the white gloves! It all sounds very strange today.
When we left school we started going to formal ‘balls’. These were really a relic of our parents’ generation but I can remember attending balls put on by the old pupils' associations of schools, by employers for their staff and by sports clubs. I expect some of them hoped to raise funds for the organisation. The most important ball for some of us in our first year out of school was the debutante ball. This was based on the British season in which young ladies dressed all in white were presented at Buckingham Palace. The practice had already died out in England but in New Zealand it was much less formal and the balls were still being held. Far fewer people became debutantes. However, people like my mother who had been ‘debs’ still kept up the tradition so a number of us were dressed in white, paraded in front of some important dignitary and taught to curtsy. It all sounds very strange now and I have to say that in my year at school fewer than twenty of us took part.
We were debs at our old school and were presented to the bishop because it was a church school. The local newspaper used to carry group photographs and it was common to have your photograph taken by a studio photographer. Your parents then framed it and put it on a suitable surface in the living room. I guess the whole thing was an ancestor or today's school-leaving prom although there was much less conspicuous consumption associated with it. Despite these slightly arcane practices we still made our own dresses. I was very proud of mine because in sewing it I mastered some new advanced dressmaking skills and was allowed to sew expensive fabric.
My dress was made of heavy white satin. I am not sure but think it was made to a Vogue Design. Vogue patterns were the poshest because there were several ranges including Vogue Paris Originals (the most difficult to sew) and Vogue Couturier. I think my dress design may have been one of this second group although I also have a feeling that the neckline was chosen by putting an upturned dinner plate on the fabric and drawing round it so maybe it was cobbled together from various sources. What I do remember is that the dress had a dropped waistline with piping around it where the bodice joined the skirt. This meant learning how to make piping from cord that came from the haberdashery department and bias cut strips of the dress fabric. You covered the cord, tacking the satin in place and then machined it very carefully between the bodice and the skirt.
My dress also had satin flowers on the skirt. My mother had a couple of friends who were extremely skilled dressmakers and I seem to remember it was one of those who taught me how to make the flowers. They were then attached to the skirt when the dress was nearly finished. Here is the studio photograph of me in my ‘deb’ dress, all made by me! The photograph was taken at someone else’s house.
To complete our outfits we wore long white leather gloves and white shoes and carried posies which were made by professional florists. And there was jewellery of course. I am wearing a Victorian pendant that had been a present to my grandmother when she was a bridesmaid. I remember my shoes because they had ‘baby Louis’ heels. Most people wore stilettos which were just coming onto the market but I was tall and preferred something that did not make me as tall as the boys I would be dancing with. I remember buying these shoes one Friday night in the market town near where we were picking tobacco as a holiday job! What a contrast between the day job and the evening outfit!
The dresses were expected to last for a second season but you had to disguise them so they did not seem like a ‘deb dress’. I made an overblouse in deep red guipure lace. Unfortunately I do not have a photograph. Nor do I have a photo of the dress I wore to balls in my third year as a student. Of course you only went to a few balls and there were many less formal kinds of dance, although I do not think we would have recognised the word 'disco'.