Clothes have a strange power for me. I can remember clothes I had as a child – I can remember getting my first pair of Doc Martens and walking about flat-footed so as not to crease them (that didn’t last long), the red and white checked shirt my Nana bought me, the Cinderella dress my mother made me from scratch with sequins looped around the hemline, through to the raspberry red mohair jumper I bought in high school with money from my job working in the local bakery. I know that my mother, Bobbie, feels the same way about clothes and it’s from her that I’ve learned the transformational magic of clothes, to appreciate beautifully made things and the importance of creativity.
Some of my favourite chats with Mum over the years have been about clothes she’s worn. She describes the hard-won purchase or the carefully constructed item with obvious love – I can only describe it as delicious – she can so vividly remember what she loved and who she was when she wore it. So, I asked her to be the first in this series about women who have lived a stylish life.
You have a true interest not only in fashion, but in style and in the way clothes work. Where do you think that comes from?
My interest started when I was very young. I grew up the youngest of 4 girls. Our mother was a fabulous seamstress and made all our clothes and knitted as well. I didn't get many hand me downs! In those days there weren't many shops for young girls’ clothes so we were extra lucky our mother was so good at sewing. We had new outfits all the time. Then as we grew up she helped us sew as well. (Ed note: Mum tells me that they used to whip up a new skirt or top on Saturday afternoon to wear out on Saturday night!)
I loved watching my sisters getting ready for their Saturday night dates – they always let me put make up on and did my hair et cetera. Annual visits to Auckland were waited for anxiously...it meant getting something bought and I remember the first new cardigan - it was pink Orlon...wow! We were all quite girly in that way.
You moved to Australia in your 20s and spent some of the 1970s there. I’ve loved the stories you’ve told me over the years about this time in your life...and the incredible outfits you wore. What was this time in your life like, style-wise?
The 70's were a wondrous time indeed....living in the wonderfully cosmopolitan city of Sydney was a dream come true. I couldn't afford designer outfits but I had a trusty sewing machine and Vogue made paper patterns!! The utter joy of finishing a dress taking it to the drycleaner for a press and then wearing it...oh yes.
I was in my early twenties so it was fun fun fun. Work was something to be endured before we could go dancing and partying... Jag jeans were the in thing in Australia and we all wanted them. Legend has it that we all wore them in the bath too get the ultimate tight fit! They were flared of course, and on our feet were the highest platforms and we discoed away till the wee small hours with our Lurex tops!! I had outrageous curls and it was the season of the afro so for a time I was at peace with my curls - there weren’t really any products to enhance curls so a lot of the time it was huge rollers and setting lotion et cetera.
Living in flats with other girls we all shared each other’s clothes which had its ups and downs - I was particular about my things and sometimes others weren't so particular. I didn't like finding my clothes in a heap on the floor in someone else’s bedroom. Or worse damaged - cigarette burns were a fave.
You were young and pretty, but that’s no cure for a questionable outfit. Any highs and lows stand out to you?
The most questionable outfit was gauchos worn with a silk shirt and a pussy cat bow...what was I thinking??? (Ed note: I would totally wear this, it sounds amazing). It was a first date with a guy I was desperate to impress and I totally over-thought that one.
A favourite outfit from those days was a beautiful Chinese styled dress with side slits to the waist worn over red pants and with beige stiletto sandals. The top was patterned with cream Chinese style birds and trees et cetera.
But the most memorable would have to be what I wore to see Barry White at the Hilton when I was 23 or 24. I wore a black all in one strapless jumpsuit, narrow in the legs, with a bolero jacket and a gathered skirt which did up at the front and was open. Diagonally across me I wore a length of diamantes purchased from a haberdashery shop and I strutted about in black patent leather strappy shoes. Knockout! I still remember the feeling of putting that on the shop. Yes, I bought it...layby'd it but it was worth not eating for a fortnight or 2!! (Ed note:...I want to say I don’t recommend spending your food money on clothes but frankly, this outfit sounds killer!)
"Style is all about YOU...wear what you love because when you feel good you'll make others feel good and that can only be a good thing. Right?"
In due course you were wooed by Dad and you guys came back to New Zealand, got married, and had us kids. It was also the 1980s – a brutal but innovative time for style. How did things change?
As we develop and mature, clothes take on a different purpose...once the 80's arrived (along with marriage and babies) my wardrobe changed a lot! It was more practical clothing and we were all into wearing our fitness clothes out (Ed note: the original athleisure.). A lot of people wore their black Adidas pants with the white stripes and ankle zips everywhere...I wouldn't be seen dead anywhere but the tennis court in those.
When I say fitness clothes I'm talking aerobics...but we wore them glammed up! Knitted leggings and long jumpers with hi-top Reeboks! Knee length shorts and blazers with high heels, jumpsuits with cinched in waists! Shoulder pads were de rigeur and BIG hair.
And into the 90's and I was a poor single mummy. Work was no longer just something to endure but something to pay the mortgage, and to cover the costs of the soccer boots and ballet lessons...and yes, of course, a knock-off Chanel jacket just for a little more bliss. I remember saving up to buy an Adele Palmer LBD. Sewing skirts out of raw silk from the remnant table at the home decorating store. Buying a man's cheap oversize white shirt and wearing it as a dress clinched in with a belt and stilettos and a smashing necklace. (Ed note: please note that we spent part of this period living in a country town. This did not dilute Mum’s approach to style – in fact, I suspect she amped up the chicness unconsciously).
What do you think about the culture that feeds fashion, and how has it changed since you were younger?
When I was a young girl in my teens we had no immediate access to the world. It took 3 months or more for our magazines to arrive from the USA or England. Television was limited to 30 minute sitcoms like The Donna Reed Show or Dr Finlay's Case Book. Television was not reality but it was the window to the world.
Everyone went to the movies once a week or so and that's where we saw what was going on in the world of fashion - it was through movie stars and pop singers. We were in awe of models, of singers and movie stars and they had a huge responsibility to 'sell' the product. It was stylish to smoke, wear short skirts, drink Bacardi, go topless, turn on, tune in and drop out...
Today's young women are thankfully more concerned with their health and it's stylish to eat kale, drink sparkling water, run a marathon and recycle!! Nowadays, beauty is not just the girl in the magazine with the perfect smile, teeth and hair. She is everywhere. We are more exposed to everything and we have been shown there is beauty anywhere. Young girls can photograph themselves and put the photo on Instagram and everyone can see it...for better or worse.
Even when you had next to no money, you looked sensational. How?
Style is so individual - Marilyn Monroe with her white shirts and blue jeans, Jackie O with her shift dresses, simple things but those girls rocked their style! Look at all the options and work out what you like. Knowing what suits your body shape is a great start.
Once you have something that looks great, get several and wear them a lot! Change an outfit with a bag or jewellery. A beautiful purple bag will charge up an outfit quicker than a black one. A smile will help too! It doesn't have to cost a lot of money as you point out in your blog....so just add that extra flourish of a little scarf or earrings and complete the outfit.
Any final words?
I think it's important to always look our best...plenty of people have to look at us as we go about our day I like to do them the kindness of making an effort. Some people may say this all frivolous rubbish but what is freedom for women if we can't enjoy what we love? It’s hard work being a modern woman so if a red dress perks up your day – put it on.