Insiders Guide Claire Regnault
Fashion in Katherine Mansfield’s Time with Claire Regnault, Wellington Bridge Club, 12:30pm, October 31.
Was Katherine Mansfield fashionable?
The young Katherine was certainly a member of Wellington’s fashionable social set. The family’s attendance at balls, afternoon teas and musical events were regularly reported in the local newspapers, along with vivid descriptions of their clothes. In 1907, Katherine was reported as wearing a black crepe de chine dress. Nothing radical there, except that her sole ornament of choice was ‘a large ivory tiki’ - quite a statement for a well-to-do young lady of that time.
What was influencing New Zealand fashion at that time? Was it all coming from England?
England, Paris and America by way of magazines, journals and newspapers.
Did Katherine Mansfield live through any major changes or innovations in fashion?
Katherine grew up during a major international fashion revolution. Throughout her Wellington years, dress reform was a hotly debated topic. In 1894, it was declared a ‘physical, mental and moral necessity’ by the NZ Dress Reform Association. I am not a Katherine Mansfield expert and don’t know where she stood on the issue, however once she left New Zealand she went a little bohemian and she definitely benefited from dress reform efforts. Her stories very much reflect the restrictive social conventions of the day, though I haven’t come across any mention of dress reform in them.
Were there many dressmakers in Wellington? Were women making their own clothes?
During 19th century New Zealand, sewing was the second largest occupation of women - the first being domestic service. In 1896, there were well over 7,000 dressmakers and milliners working in New Zealand. Katherine Mansfield beautifully describes a sewing evening in her 1912 short story New Dresses, along with the husband’s rage over the amount of money spent on fabric for the children’s dresses - ‘Anybody would think you’d married a millionaire’.
Drapers, such as Kirkcaldie and Stains and Te Aro House offered professional dressmaking and tailoring services along with a wide selection of fabrics and trimmings.
What were the fabrics used?
Fabrics were imported. Drapers’ advertisements read like wonderful poems, announcing the arrival of new shipments from England and ‘the continent’. They offered silk of all kinds - crepe de chine, taffeta, tussore, mouselline de soire, velvet, shantung; printed and plain cottons, especially voile for spring and summer gowns; wool tweeds, serge and canvas for outdoor clothes; and of course feathers and fur.
Were frocks expensive compared to now?
As with today, the cost of a garment depended on its complexity and the quality of the materials used. If you take 1903 as an example, dress fabrics from Kircaldie and Stains ranged from 1s 11d to 6s 6d per yard, while a new ready-made Eton coat would cost 35s 6d. The newspapers of the time carry a number of disgruntled articles about the cost of fashion and the poor husbands who had to foot the bill.
Would you wear anything now that Katherine Mansfield wore then?
Perhaps a tailored walking outfit with just a touch of braid. There is a spectacular pair of red ankle boots from 1890 in Te Papa’s collection that I rather fancy.