For settlers fresh off the boat in the 1840s there was little variation in dress. Men arrived wearing their immigrant clothes – moleskin trousers, a blue jumper and a floppy cheese-cutter cap or billycock hat made of felt. All clothes had to be imported before tailors got established.
New Zealand’s climate was more temperate than Britain’s, so the British smock and the shepherd’s plaid fell out of use. The overalls that British and American farmers wore became the garb of tradesmen instead. The colonial blue shirt was gradually replaced by the coloured checked shirt, worn by both the elite and the working classes: outdoor workers, gold miners, farmhands, station owners, and bush-fellers alike. Others wore Crimean shirts made of grey wool, which had a simple neckband instead of a collar and were pulled over the head. Diggers on the goldfields wore them outside their trousers.
On the sheep station
In the mid-19th century, men working on sheep stations only left the farm once or twice a year. They required functional, warm and inexpensive garments.
Station hands usually wore:
- a woollen Crimean shirt with a collar
- moleskin, woollen or corduroy trousers, with belt and knife sheath
- a waistcoat and a blue serge shirt with the tails cut short (in place of a coat)
- worsted socks
- strong, heavily nailed, watertight boots
- a felt hat
- sometimes a tie
- knee breeches and boots for riding.
Clothing was often patched and re-patched beyond recognition. For Sunday best, men wore a dark coat, a white collarless shirt and a necktie run through a ring carved from a sheep shank or a quandong nut (the hard stone of an Australian fruit). Beards were worn very long; hair and beards were trimmed with sheep shears.
Shearers came from a wider range of backgrounds and countries – many were from Australia. They wore ‘a motley variety of clothes often of a high quality’. 1 They frequently arrived with pants and boots, paper collar and smart necktie. Over time their standard working outfit became a flannel or woollen singlet, woollen tweed trousers, bowyangs (straps around the knees which held up trouser legs) and moccasins made of sacking. Shearers and other itinerant farm workers who walked from job to job were known as swaggers.
Most swaggers were very poor, and after 1900 most were elderly. Ned Slattery, known as The Shiner, is remembered for the great care he took with his gentlemanly appearance. He wore ‘a battered and holed straw boater tied to his lapel with a bootlace, a starched or celluloid collar around his neck, a dark tie faded green by the sun, a waistcoat, shrunken dark trousers, carefully fitted boots, and he carried a cane or an umbrella (or at least the handle thereof) under his arm’. 2
Trousers and shorts
Photos of farm workers up till the 1960s reveal the standard dress to be a woollen sports coat, woollen trousers, often a woollen waistcoat and woollen shirt and a felt hat. For decades, men wore woollen trousers. Shorts were almost unheard of in the late 1800s and early 1900s – they were seen as a sign of poverty, meaning the wearer could not afford to buy trousers. It was only in the 1960s that shorts became more widely worn by rural men.
New materials and products
From the 1990s many farmers adopted new synthetic materials commonly used by trampers, such as polar fleece, polypropylene and Gore-tex. These are lightweight and quick-drying, compared with traditional woollen garments. Farmers working in dairy sheds or wet conditions can purchase specially designed, hard-wearing jackets, trousers and bib trousers. Much clothing is still bought from stores in rural towns.