European women's dresses in nineteenth-century New Zealand
Dress encodes complex cultural information and operates as an aesthetic sign system, indicating ideas about status, wealth, and taste. Fashionable women's day dresses of the mid to late nineteenth century in Western culture were a potent symbol of women's place in society. One hundred and sixty two nineteenth-century dresses from museum collections in New Zealand were investigated, using a material history research method. Estimated dates of the dresses ranged from 1828 to 1914. Major fibre types and fabric structures used in their construction were identified, and design and assembly techniques described. A total of 115 factors was recorded for each dress. The data were analysed in two ways. Dated groups were formed, then each factor was tested Chi-square tests. To determine if the differences observed among various groups were statistically significant, Tukey's test was used on transformed group proportions. Grouping the data according to factors common among dresses was also carried out using block clustering. Aspects of colour, fibre and fabric content, bodice, sleeve and skirt construction, and garment dimensions differed over time. Prevailing European fashions of fabric, design and construction were exhibited in these dresses. Despite their perceived impracticality for the physical conditions in a developing colony, the dresses followed fashionable styles. Analysis using clustering techniques showed dresses of similar estimated dates to have common characteristics. It indicated some revivals of earlier fashions amongst later-dated dresses, and produced a cluster of dresses whose designs were based on a nineteenth century nostalgia for eighteenth century fashions. Overall, the analysis indicates that conformity to fashion was more important than adaptation to one's surroundings. These dresses reflect the aspirations of New Zealand settlers in their expression of genteel or middle-class values. Effects of biases in the survival of these dresses are acknowledged. Evidence from written sources was used in the interpretation of statistical results. Using both material and written records it was possible to suggest that the dress reform movement in New Zealand had little immediate impact. Waistlines were small in the 1890s dresses and skirts continued to hamper the legs. It was also suggested that many of the dresses in this sample were probably made by dressmakers, although this could not be be proven, since most dressmakers did not label their work. Dressmakers actively advertised for customers from the earliest days of settlements. They operated in a variety of ways, setting up shops themselves, working in the shops of others, or the homes of their clients, and later in the expanding workrooms of department stores. New Zealand women were quick to adopt new technology in their dressmaking. Sewing machines were used to stitch most dresses from the 1870s, but the earliest machine stitching occurs in a dress of estimated date of 1850s. Sewing machines became readily available from the 1860s, and more affordable in the 1870s. Adoption of changing sewing techniques indicates that education about sewing practices could be readily disseminated. The effectiveness of methods of using material artifacts as an historical resource combined with documentary evidence, and of using statistical techniques not commonly used in historical research, to analyse the data was demonstrated. Such a dual investigation has proved that in this sample of fashionable dresses, analysed in a depth not achieved before, there is no indication of adaptation to the colonial environment.
Advisor: Page, Dorothy; Laing, Raechel
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Clothing and Textile Sciences, History
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: material history, New Zealand, European women's dress, nineteenth century, dressmakers, sewing machines
Research Type: Thesis