Avice Maud Bowbyes was born on 29 May 1901 at Kaikoura, the only child of Elizabeth Maud Glanville and her husband, Alfred Clarence Bowbyes, a schoolteacher. Avice spent her early life in Christchurch, where her father became principal of Hornby School. She attended Christchurch Girls’ High School and then spent 1919 as a probationary teacher at Christchurch West District High School. When she became a student for the diploma in home science at the University of Otago in 1920, Avice already held a teacher’s needlework diploma from the City and Guilds of London Institute, as well as first-class passes in cookery, needlework and dressmaking. She completed her diploma in 1922.
In 1923 Avice was employed as an assistant in the university’s Faculty of Home Science, teaching needlework, dressmaking, textiles, and home planning and furnishing under the guidance of Professor Ann Gilchrist Strong and Gladys McGill, both Americans. In 1927–28 she studied for a BSc at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, New York, and in 1929 she was appointed Head of the Clothing Department in the Faculty of Home Science in Dunedin, a post she was to occupy for 32 years. Her regal appearance in the front row of faculty photographs was always immaculate, testament to the high standards she maintained for herself and exacted from her students. She never married, and was always known as Miss Bowbyes in the faculty.
Further study leave in 1935 allowed Bowbyes to complete an MA at Columbia University. During the 1930s and 1940s, she taught undergraduates dressmaking and design, house planning and home furnishing, and the history of furniture. She also gave illustrated lectures to women throughout Otago as part of Ann Strong’s initiative to establish a rural adult education service, taught sewing to groups of unemployed, and wrote a syllabus for secondary school clothing classes. She argued that students must be able to make intelligent, suitable and artistic decisions about clothes for themselves and others, and about furniture and furnishings for their future homes. In 1945 she criticised the current method of teaching pattern drafting in schools. Her alternative procedure enabled students to understand the relationship between the pattern and the shape of the human figure. Avice urged teachers to encourage in boys and girls the appreciation of art and love of beauty. She favoured an empirical approach to learning principles of design and suggested that schools create areas in classrooms, or model flats, where these principles could be applied.
Avice Bowbyes was an active member of the Otago University Association of Home Science Alumnae. She held office on its national executive (1951–54), representing the Faculty of Home Science, and was president of the Dunedin branch (1944–46). At the 1947 refresher course for alumnae she gave talks on house planning and furnishing, upholstery fibres and fabrics, the furnishing budget, art elements in design, and the history of costume. Through the 1950s Bowbyes assisted the organisation’s fund-raising for the new home science student residence, Studholme Hall; she organised presentations of students’ dress designs, and as the students paraded in their designs she described each dress, talking of its development, techniques and finish.
Two sabbatical periods presented enjoyable opportunities for Bowbyes. In 1948–49 she visited tertiary institutions in England, Paris, Sweden and the United States to view clothing courses and discuss teaching methods, and in 1955–56 she spent six months at L’École de la Chambre syndicale de la couture parisienne. Provision of a press pass allowed her to view the designers’ new collections and enabled her to report on French fashion periodically for the Otago Daily Times for 20 years. She encouraged others to attend this school and revisited it herself after her retirement.
While fashion and fashion history were close to Avice’s heart all her life, she also published work on budgeting for clothing, creating basic patterns, and modern children’s clothing. She retired in 1961, but spent six years teaching couture tailoring at the Macdonald Institute, University of Guelph, Canada, from 1963; she then produced a publication on women’s tailoring.
Bowbyes returned to Dunedin in 1969. In the latter part of her life she pursued the goal of establishing a costume society similar to that in the United Kingdom. She did not succeed, but did raise awareness in museums and galleries of the value of costume and textile collections. She died at Dunedin on 29 December 1992, leaving a valuable collection of costume and fashion books to the University of Otago library, and a substantial sum to the Otago Museum to assist with upkeep of its costume collection.