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Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand's first fashionistaKatherine Mansfield, New Zealand's first fashionista

Jack Yan says Katherine Mansfield was New Zealand’s 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. 1918–23 (University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Special Collections).

Tangiwai, or bowenite, pendant, belonging to Leslie Heron Beauchamp, Mansfield’s 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.
   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

The Material Mansfield: Traces of a Writer’s Life (by Laurel Harris, Mary Morris and Joanna Woods) is the book of the exhibition—it’s highly recommended by us. Lavishly photographed, beautifully designed, and exceptional value at NZ$40. Available at the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace on Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand; or at booksellers nationally. Proof of purchase will entitle those attending the exhibition to get in free. More information at the Random House website. All proceeds to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace.
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 indispensable complement.’
   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 Menton.
   You see these items and you realize that the psyche of Mansfield is no that different from that of the modern New Zealand woman.
   So where does it stem from? What is it about the New Zealand fashion sense that allows women here to take their own paths?
   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 Society collection).

Ukrainian folk costume, early 20th century, given to Mansfield by S. S. Kotelansky (1882–1955) (Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society collection).

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