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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 5 (August 1, 1939)

Buy… — New Zealand Goods — and Build New Zealand — New Zealand Industries Series — No. 6.—Women's Overwear

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New Zealand Goods
and Build New Zealand
New Zealand Industries Series
No. 6.—Women's Overwear.

(Rly. Publicity photos)

The prosaic title of this “Women's Overwear” covers the whole scenic region of hats, frocks, coats and the variegated landscape of feminine “odds and ends.” A well-stocked full-sized library would be needed to house all the good and bad jokes, the wise and foolish sayings, and the varied philosophies which have been based upon women's raiment. They date back to the misty times of Hammurabi, and no civilization of any age has been without them. The essential first principle of feminine wear is change, as a peep at any family photograph album will show.

Male attire in a group taken ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, may look a little odd, but the ladies' frocking will provoke crows of laughter.

I had a fascinating journey through various New Zealand establishments which are coping with the problem of providing our women with the means of looking smart or being fashionably gowned.

As far as is possible to the judgment of a mere male, our New Zealand units are making clothes which are, in every respect, identical with the latest New York, London, or Paris models. This article explains in some measure how this claim is justified. As usual, I had to make a random selection of typical establishments, and the six described here have numerous relations of equally high standard and production capacity.

Strangely enough, the sun has had a great deal to do with modern trends in women's frocks and hats. Beauty culturists have realised that their efforts are vain unless health rules are observed, and modern precepts insist on more and more access to fresh air and sunlight. The result is that the area, as it were, of the feminine form which has to be covered has grown beautifully less. The process has accelerated since the World War, aided by the great instalment of men's work handled by women in that dread time. Freedom of movement is now the watchword, and it is well to remember that this new requirement has increased the difficulty and complexity of the frock-making problem. The maker has now to get his effects with far less elbow room, but still has to deliver his freight of beauty and elegance. Millinery is, of course, in similar case. The hat only covers part of the feminine head, and the curls and waves of the modern coiffure must be allowed to show. The New Zealand executive of a millinery or gownmaking establishment is also
The main work room at Smartwear Ltd., Christchurch.

The main work room at Smartwear Ltd., Christchurch.

faced with the fact that films, illustrated magazines and other mediums pour into our country. These provide the woman with an artistic eye or a vagrant fancy with continuous views of the fashion-wear of the whole wide world. In addition, there is the travel habit of New Zealanders. Therefore I found in the purveyors and makers of women's wear, one of the most travelled sections of our already restless community. I paid visits to three establishments devoted to frock making, and a trio of millinery production units. In each case I found that their principals were globe-trotters in the real sense. Regularly and often they visited the fashion centres of the world to learn what was new in method, design, and trends. They knew dress designers in New York, Dresden or Paris, and ornament factories in Padua or Prague.

When I called on Fashions Ltd., for instance, I found that the Managing Director was on a trip to America and Europe. In the part of the gown world known as “ready to wear,” it would seem that the United States is in the lead. From the four corners of the earth they have gathered men and women of all nationalities to fill their serried ranks of designers, cutters, and ornament makers.

I was shown three New Zealand-made copies of “last word” American models. I made a conscientious effort and spent time on a close scrutiny to find a difference between original and copy, and could discern no difference whatever. Every thread and tracery, every tint in ornamentation and material, seemed to me to be exactly the same. Then the manager explained page 18
A smart new model “tried on” at “Flamingo” Frocks Ltd., Auckland.

A smart new model “tried on” at “Flamingo” Frocks Ltd., Auckland.

that one difference had escaped me. The New Zealand article was better finished and it had a hem to enable “letting down” or some other mysterious process.

The material was “schiffli,” a lovely fabric in which flowers are woven as an integral part. I was interested in the large show-room of Fashions Ltd., in the enormous variety of the flower and metal ornaments required to give the finishing touches to all sorts and types of gowns. Some of the flowers are made on the premises with modern embroidering machines, but the world is explored for original and exquisite novelties. In the words of the manager: “a distinctive ornament is often the key point of a dress design and simply makes the gown.”

By the way, one interesting difference between the actual model and the New Zealand facsimile was the price. The shortest way to put it is that the New Zealand woman gets her model gown in the shop at the same price as her American sister. Imported, it would cost three times as much.

The work in the two main floors of Fashions Ltd. is divided into two sections, the silk fabric manufacture, and the making of clothes from heavier materials. No cotton fabrics whatever are used in the whole place.

In the first division, I was introduced to one miracle-working machine after another, the “blind-stitcher,” one that did “tucking,” applique work and so on, and an elaborate apparatus with slender lines that did “shirring.” It was loaded with twelve reels at a time, and seemed to me to have enough intelligence to pass a standard. This machine is the very latest, and, in fact, was traced down after the experts here had wondered how its work was done.

The system of Fashions Ltd. is to train the employees in as wide a way as possible. Most of them are able at the finish of their training to manipulate any machine, however complicated. The great work-rooms are light and airy, and there is a dining-room on each floor.

There are over two hundred folk in this New Zealand concern, with a wide variety of occupations. Above the room where the woollens are fashioned there is a real surprise. Here in a gown-making establishment is a room with the mechanistic air of a precision plant. Here is a genuine die-press, making handsome buckles.

The die shapes themselves come
Happy times in “Flamingo” Iunch-room, Auckland.

Happy times in “Flamingo” Iunch-room, Auckland.

from overseas, and these machines press out the shape and cover it with cloth. The process needs to be seen to be believed. Here also was a large “butcher's block” for various types of stamping work. There is an air compressor plant for quilting, where the thread is blown through the fabric. There is as well an almost human pleating machine. Now, one feature of this place impressed me greatly. There was no monotony in the work. Fashions Ltd. cater for the art objects among clothes. Each piece of work-manship is a thing of planned beauty and ordered design. The materials are themselves pretty and satisfying to look at, and their growth into the perfected article is an engrossing and stimulating experience. The folks here are happy; the conditions are pleasant in every way; the work is less of a task than an art, having much of the creative about it; there seems to be no drudgery, and there is a general air of camaraderie.

This last feature was just as prominent in the smaller, compact plant of Smartwear Ltd., which I called upon in Christchurch. This is a business now in the second generation of the founder family. Its product is widely different from Fashions Ltd., who confine their output to the highest quality gowns, while Smartwear Ltd. make cotton frocks, catering for another class of market altogether. Their objective is reasonable cost, but I have never understood that there could be such teeming variety and so many ranges of designs in cotton frockings. Over four hundred new samples are turned out here each year. Every hue of the rainbow is seen in these cotton and art silk fabrics, and they are invariably neat and “dressy.”

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Steam presses making “shapes” at Prestige Millinery, Ltd., Auckland.

Steam presses making “shapes” at Prestige Millinery, Ltd., Auckland.

This place had its distinctive atmosphere. The workroom manager told me that quite a problem was created by the visits of former employees who come back regularly to see their aforetime confreres, and that every time there was a farewell to a girl going off to marry, “there was a crying match all round.”

I learned that the average “life” of a feminine employee before leaving to set up house, was eight years.

This is a one-floor factory with a nicely arranged “learners' room,” and the “flow” of the making processes is easy and steady. There is no moving about, and 500 frocks are cut in one “lay” and distributed for making up with an apparently effortless system. By the way, here I learned that there is a wide difference between the figures of New Zealand women and those of the northern hemisphere. There is even a difference between Invercargill and Auckland. On the whole, the New Zealand form is sturdier. Smartwear Ltd. is well worth a visit. Summer frocking and every day household wear are made in this Christchurch establishment which is at least of world parity.

It is no reflection on the other sex to point out that the checking is done by men of long service who can “spot” a defect at long range.

My next visit was to the fine premises in Auckland, where Flamingo frocks are made.

This temple is dedicated to fashion and I suspect that many of its models are quoted by proud wearers as having the prize distinction of being “imported.” There is a designing studio where two accomplished artists work out new ideas and modifications of the latest overseas creations. There is no valid reason, by the way, why a New Zealand dress-designer should not do work of the same artistic standard as anyone overseas. The literature of pattern books, design catalogues, and technical methods, is enormous. When, for instance, a great Paris dress-designer evolves something new, the world has it in facsimile in very little time. Thereafter it is a matter of faithfulness of craftsmanship.

Flamingo Frocks, also, owe much to their “gadgets.” Rows and rows of boxes contain these jewels of work-manship and artistry, for incorporation into the line and flow of some lovely garment. In a high-grade fashion plant, of course, the number of each design is much smaller than in the mass production type of unit, and the
Polishing and lustre-finishing at Prestige Millinery, Ltd., Auckland.

Polishing and lustre-finishing at Prestige Millinery, Ltd., Auckland.

individual skill has to be higher in degree. Pattern cutting is the high level in the Flamingo Frock establishment, requiring great technical efficiency and natural talent.

Blue smocks are worn by the workers in the fine main workroom, where there are batteries of the latest types of machines. It would be idle to enumerate the names of the various fabrics I met here. I only know that they were one and all lovely to look at. We had a leisurely cup of tea in the well-appointed lunch-room over-looking Auckland Harbour.

The founder of this institution is himself an artist, and very quietly and effectively, he demolished the super-stition that there is any reason to import a fashion frock.

Three-fourths of all the clothes-jokes of the world have been about hats —feminine head-gear. The little milliner has been the heroine of more than half the Cinderella stories of the world.

The problem for the maker of feminine hats would seem to be almost insoluble. To find another woman with a frock that is similar is barely supportable, but it can and often must be put up with. A modern emporium can risk a window display of gowns that have family resemblances. Hats are far different. As nearly as possible, a modern millinery unit has to aim at making no two hats alike. The feminine objective calls for a hat which no other woman can possibly possess. To find an exact replica on the head of a best friend may have given rise to the expression, “the last straw.”

I was astonished to find the extent and magnitude of the establishments page 20 page 21
“The Last Word.” Newly erected factory premises for M.K., Auckland.

“The Last Word.” Newly erected factory premises for M.K., Auckland.

devoted to the making of hats on a large scale.

My first visit was paid to Prestige Ltd. The name is familiar, for these folks have their own shops in a score of New Zealand towns. The factory is a modern plant full of surprises.

The foundation of the modern hat is the “hood.” These come from various parts of the world, some of them actually woven by hand under water. They are amorphous and capacious affairs of plaited materials, and are ready to be fashioned into any conceivable shape. The processes by which this is effected are many; I found at Prestige Ltd., for instance, in one room, over three hundred different blocks in use. These come from Paris in the main, and are contrived to give the hood any given shape. As I passed through, I found reservoirs of more and more blocks, there being many, of course, that had become out-moded. There is an astonishing variety in hoods, fine and broad straws, and varying types of fibre being interlaced with extra-ordinary methods of patterning, weaving and plaiting. I found, however, that what was most interesting was the variety of shapes that were conjured
One of the large Work-rooms at M.K Millinery Establishment, Auckand.

One of the large Work-rooms at M.K Millinery Establishment, Auckand.

out of these simple, broad-brimmed cones. Helmets, berets, round hats with peaks, sloping chimney shapes, flat-topped circular hats, and all manner of angled and curved crowns, were formed by some sort of wizardry, and made ready for the last new shape in hats. These bodies are then tinted, lacquered and prepared for weather wear. This involves the use of blowers and dryers, and the application of extensive scientific forms of treatment.

I found that the crux of the problem in the fashioning of a smart hat is the ornamentation. A severe blue simple straw, suddenly springs into an elegant art object from the addition of a graceful metal sprig, spear, pin or whatnot, designed in Paris, Chicago, or Padua. Our millinery experts need a free hand to get the world's best in this particular arena. It is a liberal education to go through the trays of hat ornaments in a modern New Zealand factory. The fertility of invention, the prodigal ingenuity of design, and the diverse beauty of each gemlike article, are beyond the range of the usual adjectives.

Prestige hats are art creations, the work of artists who are guided by world standards of fashion.

At the M.K. Factory, in Great South Road, Auckland, I found a huge modern building, recently erected and equipped to meet New Zealand needs. The main workroom floor takes a tone of green from the tasteful smocks and is the largest I have seen. Here I paid special attention to the polishing processes for felt hats. These machines were in use in all the three places I visited, and one of the principal polishing mediums is baby shark-skin. So when one of our best dressers at the races is wearing page 22 page 23
Overlooking Myers Park, Auckland, is this fine establishment of Ross & Glendining.

Overlooking Myers Park, Auckland, is this fine establishment of Ross & Glendining.

a peach-bloom hat which shines in the lawn sunlight, the sheen is due to the use of material got from an infant sea-rover. M.K. specialises in “Tiny Tots'” and all manner of children's helmets. Here I got a slight idea of how straws and felts are tinted, and a passing view of men's hats being made.

The M.K. plant is a triumph of modernity. Everything in it is the last word, and the world has been ransacked for the best.

My next call was at Ross & Glendining's imposing building which over-looks the green beauty of Myers Park. This great old firm is one of the pioneers of New Zealand industry, and, of course, has many other branches of activity outside millinery. However, their hat-making plant was a revelation. First I saw the battery of hydraulic presses dealing just as any die press does with the various “hoods.” Blocking, lacquering, drying, stiffening and other processes, reduce the amorphous material to the foundation of a modern hat. Here I saw a range of modern machines which emboss and stitch edge to edge. I also saw the process of evolving a straw from a thin ribbon of plait, done skilfully by a “round and round” machine, and invisible stitching.

I saw lilac georgette turning into a hat under skilful fingers, and wiring being done with gauzy materials.

Perhaps, however, I found the most fascination in the room where the “in-dividual” hats were being fashioned. “You have to be born a milliner,” said my guide, and I quite believed him, as I saw these feminine artists at work.

I imagine that the designing of one of these lovely things is like painting a variegated sunset.

They are veritable “things of beauty” in themselves, and their range of form, complexity, ornamentation, simplicity and tint, seems endless.

(Photo., Thelma R. Kent.) Looking up the Dart Valley towards Mt. Earnslaw, South Island.

(Photo., Thelma R. Kent.)
Looking up the Dart Valley towards Mt. Earnslaw, South Island.

The simple truth is that, if art is the creation of beauty, all these differing types of manufacture of women's apparel are, in actuality, manifestations of good art.

In all these half-dozen New Zealand institutions that I visited, I found genuine artistic fervour; I found the creative impulse; I found high talent in design; I found a worship of colour and line and originality coupled with an admiration for good ideas from overseas.

There was the general objective to equal the world's best and a world search for materials and methods. It is a pity, therefore, that many of these folk have to disguise the fact that their goods are “made in New Zealand.” It was borne upon me forcibly that thousands of New Zealand women who fondly imagine they are wearing an imported gown or hat are unwittingly helping New Zealand industry. There is absolutely no foundation for the belief that any “ready to wear” gown of whatever standard of smartness, cannot be as well cut and faithfully made in New Zealand as anywhere else.

I asked a distinguished New Zealander, holding an important London post, what struck him most on his return visit here, and he said: “The general smartness of the women's frocking. This lounge has as many pretty gowns as you would see in this sort of place in London.” I know now that he was looking at a number of frocks and hats made by New Zealanders in New Zealand factories. And, after all, why not?

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