A new exhibition captures pivotal images from New Zealand fashion photography through the decades. Curator and historian Doris de Pont talks to Josie Steenhart about the importance of sharing our history and stories.
When Doris de Pont closed up shop on the eponymous clothing label she’d run for more than two decades, it was far from the end of her career in fashion.
“I closed my label in 2008. You always review what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and there was a lot of pressure to be able to reduce the cost of production by taking it offshore and doing less original work, and I really didn’t want to do that,” she says.
“But I really didn’t want to give up fashion, so that led to this reflection on the place of fashion in our society.
“I went back to university and did an honours degree in museums and cultural heritage. And that made me very aware that all our museums and institutions have got these amazing collections of clothes that they don’t show. They don’t use them to do the storytelling about our lives and history.
“And so I really wanted to change that, not by collecting more, but by showing more, by telling stories about that history.”
And so the New Zealand Fashion Museum was born. But if you’re envisaging a grand old building or perhaps something contemporary and architectural, brimming with collections of garments showcased on tailors’ dummies, you’d be mistaken, as this museum is of the digital kind.
“We don’t have a collection and we don’t have a building,” says de Pont. “We are storytellers, so we collect images and histories and look for strands and threads that are of concern in contemporary practice.
“We then look at the antecedents and try and tell a story to help people understand where that sits, where that’s coming from, how that reflects who we are, where we’re going.”
The online museum brings together a record of the national collection of fashion objects held both in public and private collections. It also provides a digital home for the pop-up exhibitions and is a vehicle for exclusive exhibitions, such as the current offering, Flash Back, which features the work of 18 fashion photographers working in New Zealand between 1930 and 2015.
“We tend to have two physical exhibitions a year, but like a fashion business you have to review what you’re doing and how you’re doing it,” says de Pont. “So this exhibition is very different for us in that it doesn’t have any garments in it or any physical photos, it’s all digital. The images are projected as an immersive magazine as well as digital photo albums.”
One thing de Pont finds fascinating about New Zealand’s fashion photography is the light.
“Light is a real issue in New Zealand, we have particularly shrill light, so it’s interesting to see how the photographers have worked with it – some have tried to mitigate it and control it, others have used the light, turned it to their own hand.”
Another is the “New Zealand identity that you’re reading in the photograph... You can clearly see the changes in where we positioned ourselves in the world.
“In the early images, the 1930s through to the 50s, we were promoting ourselves and our own manufacturing with sets and lighting that often channelled the imagery of Hollywood – dramatic lighting and starlet poses.
“By the time we got to the 1960s we were much more focused on being as fashionable as the fashion capitals of the world, showing that we could be as good as them, and we actually achieved this when our photographers, garments and models were finally deemed good enough to create the content for New Zealand Vogue (albeit under the supervision of the Australia-based editor).
“This continued, but by the 1980s a new parallel point of view was emerging with magazines like ChaCha, which championed locally inflected fashion and served it up in images that featured our urban and natural environment.
“The models also became more diverse in age, colour and gender through the inclusion of non-professional models in the available pool. The images we saw looked like us and engendered confidence and pride in our own unique voice. This spilled over into the high-end fashion magazines as well, so that today it is all a natural part of the mix.
“What I love about fashion is that it’s so expressive of ourselves, that you can play with it – you can be who you want to be, you can have fun,” says de Pont.
‘‘I love the pleasure of fashion really, and I suppose that’s what drives me.”
Flash Back, Fashion Photography in New Zealand 1930-2015, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, until Friday. To check out the content of The Fashion Museum go to nzfashionmuseum.org.nz.
Desmond Williams’ photo for Fashion Quarterly, 1986.