In the early days of European settlement, the first roads were often muddy tracks among long ferns and flax. Women, more then men, had to modify their clothes to protect them from mud and water. They attached removable and washable braids or bands on skirt hems, and inserted sturdy back portions into their skirts. Women also used a device like a walking stick with a clasp on one end, to hold up their hems and keep them out of harm’s way.
Isolation and improvisation
New arrivals had to rely on supplies of clothing from Britain, as there was little local industry and labour. Taranaki surveyor Edwin Harris and his family escaped with only their lives when fire destroyed their raupō whare (bulrush hut) in the winter of 1841. Harris’s wife gathered up the burnt articles, making cloth shoes that the children wore until new clothes arrived from England, a year later.
Settlers wrote to relatives and friends in Britain begging for clothing. Rural women often had to alter and repair clothing for themselves and their children, and wear unfashionable garments.
During the Second World War, women known as land girls worked on many farms as part of the war effort. They were supplied with a very smart dress uniform and a working kit, consisting of a pair of boots, a sou’wester hat, a working hat, a leather jacket, a pair of leggings, three pairs of overalls, three shirts, a riding raincoat and a pair of gumboots.
Propriety and respectability
Some women continued to wear stays and crinolines, in the hope of keeping up appearances and standards of behaviour. Some women no longer wore riding habits. Lady Mary Anne Barker, who lived on a Canterbury sheep station in the 1860s, advised emigrants against bringing thin cotton muslin, but urged thick boots with nails or screws in the soles for walking in the hills. She noted that hats were difficult because of the wind.
The lack of refined manners attracted criticism. Colonial woman Margaret Herring wrote to her sister despairing of the ‘habits of “bush it-will-do-ish-ness”’ 1 of wealthy Upper Hutt friends. Working women on the goldfields were described as caring little for their appearance and looking sunburned, crass, slovenly and masculine.
There was also disapproval of clothing that was too bright. Mary Homeyer, who arrived in Otago in 1849, disliked the outfits that working men wore. She described ‘the colonial costume’ of cotton, corduroy, and blue flannel as ‘a most unbecoming dress’. 2
Snobbish attitudes were for those who could afford them. For many years people in isolated areas who wanted to buy clothes had to rely on pedlars arriving on a packhorse. Many bought clothing through mail order catalogues. Poorer people often made clothes out of white cotton flour bags, potato and sugar bags, especially during depressions. Hand-me-down clothing was the norm for children. In the late 1800s, rural women’s clothing became more practical – simple cotton dresses and skirts.