Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand's first fashionista
says Katherine Mansﬁeld
was New Zealands ﬁrst fashionista, as a tribute to her
takes place in Wellington
Expanded from issue
26 of Lucire
Bed jacket in silk with silk ties, c.
191823 (University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Special Collections).
Tangiwai, or bowenite, pendant, belonging to
Leslie Heron Beauchamp, Mansfields youngest brother, who was
killed in service in World War I in 1915. Mansfield kept the pendant
until her death.
SOME SAY that New Zealand fashion
originated from the shows that used to travel the country, showing
the latest collections and overseas trends. Others say that New
Zealand fashion only found its feet with the start of Fashion Week
in 2001. The reality, however, goes further back.
burgundy velvet skirt and a pale yellow silk blouse, with elbow
length sleeves … The brightly coloured clothes she was wearing might
have aroused some trifling criticism had they been worn by someone
else. But on her it looked so becoming, like green leaves, the peony’s
I had the privilege of seeing the exhibition,
The Material Mansfield, at the
Katherine Mansfield Birthplace in Thorndon, Wellington, New
Zealand last week, and to learn more about the country’s most famous
writer. Mansfield lived between 1888 and 1923, and if you hear stories
about her fashion tastes, you’d be convinced you were hearing about
any Kiwi girl on an extended OE.
The Chinese poet Xu Zhimo wrote, ‘She … had on
a pair of shiny patent leather shoes and bright green stockings.
She wore a
And while Mansfield was cosmopolitan in her outlook,
when she was abroad she insisted on wearing tikis and other items
to say, ‘I am a New Zealander.’
While we can imagine someone wearing Mansfield’s
outfits today, remember we are talking about just under 100 years
ago—an age that wasn’t exactly known for individuality.
I suppose some of this came from Mansfield as
part of the modernist movement, something that suits a future article
altogether. But it does show that the idea of the Kiwi woman being
independent and innovative in her fashion choices is not a new one.
The exhibition itself brings together for the first
time not only some of her clothing but her Corona typewriter, her
jewellery (a tangiwai pendant and a tiki among them), her perfume
bottles, postcards and personal photographs—even locks of hair—in
an insight into a writer’s life and how ahead of her time she was.
Two items really struck me: a silk bed jacket—the
‘literary celebrity bed jacket’—with some minor repairs, which had
been in the basement at the University of Leeds, and a shawl which
had been in the basement of the Bibliothèque Municipale in
You see these items and you realize that the psyche
of Mansfield is no that different from that of the modern New Zealand
So where does it stem from? What is it about the
New Zealand fashion sense that allows women here to take their own
It would be easy to say it was the surroundings
and the influence of Maori culture and it would be true.
But I think it goes further into the perceived
isolation and the sense of freedom that all New Zealanders share,
which you realize when you go abroad.
It’s part of a character that’s far less obvious:
it seeps in over time and contrary to conventional wisdom, Mansfield
reminds us that it’s been here for over a century.
To celebrate that, designers—Trelise Cooper, Hank
Cubitt, Liza Foreman, Kerrie Hughes, Robyn Mathieson, Andrea Moore,
Alexandra Owen, Viviana Pannell of Basquesse—have created 21st-century
clothing to celebrate Katherine Mansfield’s sense of style and,
perhaps unwittingly, to celebrate our national culture. These are
shown at the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace as well during the course
of the month until early May.
We’re part of a special place and we should celebrate
it—and I hope you all get to at the
Katherine Mansfield Birthplace on Tinakori Road this month. Exhibition
finishes May 8, 2008. •
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Hei tiki, made from whalebone, with suspension hole (Katherine
Mansfield Birthplace Society collection).
Evening dress in artificial silk (Katherine Mansfield Birthplace
Ukrainian folk costume, early 20th century, given to Mansfield by
S. S. Kotelansky (18821955) (Katherine Mansfield Birthplace