You might wonder who spends a year researching and writing a 40,000-word Master of Arts thesis on the history of fashion? The answer is me—a person proud to identify herself as “Elle Woods: Arts Student Edition”.
The past has always fascinated me, what people did before us, and what the world was like. That’s why I studied History at University. Similarly, fashion has been an interest of mine and is important to my everyday life. I care about my appearance and enjoy presenting myself in a certain way. For someone as girly as me and refers to herself as the pink queen in her Instagram bio, I thought, how can I intertwine my two interests? University introduced me to an area of history that involves studying fashion. It sounded like a great idea to me to become an expert in dresses and heels!
Undertaking a thesis has allowed me to focus my interests in history and fashion and delve deeper into a historical field that has received minimal attention, both internationally and domestically. Despite originating in the West as a way for elite classes to distinguish themselves from lower classes, fashion has received minimal attention throughout history because of its connection to femininity and, therefore, its association with frivolity.
My thesis stems from my previous research projects I have conducted, which include a study on Christian Dior’s first collection, the New Look, launched on February 12, 1947, in Paris, France. This collection was significant because its style remained popular throughout the post-war period and the 1950s. Last year I also completed an honours project looking at 1960s American fashion in Vogue magazine, along with a literature review of twentieth century New Zealand fashion; underscoring the value of studying fashion history. (Unfortunately, this qualification has yet to be conferred; thanks, COVID-19, for postponing the ceremony twice so far).
My Masters thesis focuses on New Zealand women’s engagement with fashion from 1945 to1959. It is primarily concerned with consumption and engagement. I am interested in where New Zealanders gathered their ideas about fashion, the places they brought fashionable clothing from, and what influenced their tastes and the clothes they made.
I argue that the middle-class women consumer was the most significant during the post-war period. The middle class was significant for several reasons: the post-war period saw an increase in population with a high birth-rate and more wealth; and women continued to work after the war, so families were less reliant on the male to be the sole earner. Middle-class women are important because they more accurately represent how women engaged with everyday fashion compared to upper-class women. My findings reveal a gap in the literature about New Zealand’s fashion history. Much of the academic work on New Zealand’s fashion history orients itself towards the lens of producers in New Zealand rather than on the consumer. This work focuses on high fashion and the designers who made such garments. The importance of the everyday is dismissed because fashion originated as a way for the upper classes to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. But this dismissal is unfair because everyday fashion involves everyone, not just a select few. There is also little scholarly work on New Zealand’s consumption history and even less on clothes shopping and buying habits. However, consumption affects everyone; we consume daily, and consumption is all around us.
I look at fashion through three different lenses: magazines, shopping, and dressmaking. I choose these areas because of their connection to middle-class women and everyday life. Middle-class women often sought magazines such as the New Zealand Women’s Weekly (NZWW) for fashion because this magazine was aimed at a middle-class female audience. Women also shopped at department stores such as Farmers because this shop catered to women who were left in charge of buying for their family. Dressmaking was also popular for everyday women because it was a way they could save money for their household, but also express their creativity and create one off pieces for themselves. Much of the content I have found reveals that New Zealand largely followed fashion trends from places overseas, such as Paris and America; highlighting further New Zealand’s connectedness to the rest of the world.
Overall, my findings reveal plenty of new insights. For example, women of this period valued practicality, quality, and appearance in their dress. During this time, clothing was not so mass-produced as it is today, so when women purchased a dress, for example, they took good care of it and wore the item often to get their money’s worth. Advertisers often promised their products were good value for money, durable, of good quality, and ensured women remained well dressed to make them spend money on fashion. Floral patterns were common for garments such as dresses because they were feminine and considered appropriate for all women to wear, regardless of their age. Women might have been reluctant to purchase a dress that would be worn every day in colours such as white because it got dirty easily.
The connection between fashion and consumption during the post-war period shares close similarities to that of today. For example, New Zealand often followed, and now, continues to follow countries overseas to see what’s in fashion. Sources such as magazines and the media, which continue to operate today, dictate the consumption of fashion, and offer plenty of insights into how younger people, such as us students, access and interact with fashion trends. This is clear throughout apps such as Instagram and TikTok. Eventually, the fashions famous people wear become popular and everyone wants to dress just like them. We can see an example of how styles make comebacks through 1990s and 2000s fashion becoming trendy again. This time was when many undergraduate students were born. It was our childhood and now it provides a sense of nostalgia and reminds us of the “good old days”, when the world was supposedly a better place.
My research on dressmaking and home-sewing also relates to today’s younger audience. Younger generations have become more environmentally conscious and want to help combat climate change to protect the planet for future generations. Sewing and thrifting has very much come back in fashion because it can help minimise your carbon footprint. Once again, sewing is a valuable skill because altering clothing you already own is more sustainable than purchasing.
Whether you find my study area interesting, or admire my reasons for pursuing a Masters in fashion history, I hope you enjoyed hearing about my research. If you want to get in touch and hear more about my work, email me at email@example.com.