It’s time to pack your flap­per dress, pearls and para­sol.


EDI­TOR’S POV It was cu­rios­ity more than nos­tal­gia that at­tracted me to the an­nual Art Deco Week­end in Napier, New Zealand, this past Fe­bru­ary. Go­ing in, I had no par­tic­u­lar sen­ti­men­tal­ity for the area or the era, but I was en­thralled with the idea that a “trip back in time” could pro­vide a unique lens through which to ex­plore the his­toric (and mod­ern) charms of a place. Retro beach pic­nics, vin­tage car rides and Charleston dances—not to men­tion 40,000 fel­low trav­ellers im­mac­u­lately dressed in feath­ered head­bands and straw boater hats—did not dis­ap­point.

not long af­ter I ar­rived in Napier, New Zealand, for the city’s an­nual Art Deco Week­end, I traded in my mod­ern rental car for a chauf­feured retro ride: a shiny black 1939 Packard with a roomy spring-loaded back seat. My driver, lo­cal Teri Mo­rales Probert, dressed all gang­ster cool in a black but­ton-down, sus­penders, striped slacks, wingtips and a fe­dora, gave me my first spin around town—and back in time. “Napier was the first place in New Zealand to get neon lights,” she ex­plained as we drove past pas­tel-coloured the­atres, build­ings and houses dec­o­rated with iconic art deco and art nou­veau zig­gu­rat, sun­burst and Egyptian col­umn de­signs. The mo­tifs here of­ten in­cor­po­rate del­i­cate swirling Maori sym­bols—some­thing you won’t see in Miami’s Art Deco Dis­trict.

Most of the sea­side town, which is tucked in Hawke’s Bay on the eastern shore of the coun­try’s North Is­land, was re­built in the af­ter­math of a 1931 earth­quake and sub­se­quent fire that dec­i­mated the area. Al­most all the re­con­struc­tion hap­pened dur­ing the height of art deco’s pop­u­lar­ity, and many of the build­ings have been pre­served and re­stored, mak­ing this one of the world’s most au­then­tic 1930s-era des­ti­na­tions. This is why, for one sum­mer week­end each Fe­bru­ary, the area’s pop­u­la­tion swells by 40,000 as vis­i­tors from around the world come—with suit­cases packed full of vin­tage fash­ions and pic­nic gear—to im­merse them­selves in the past.

By Fri­day night, retro-clad revellers of all ages have over­taken the usu­ally sleepy town, all set to en­joy themed pic­nics, din­ners and dances and take in a vin­tage-car pa­rade and an air show. While the pre­dom­i­nant era of dress seen on the streets is from the ’20s and ’30s, the beauty of the week­end is that pretty much any­thing retro goes. I spot­ted men and women wear­ing ev­ery­thing from 1890s golf at­tire, com­plete with knicker­bock­ers (and car­ry­ing vin­tage clubs), to im­mac­u­lately styled ’50s dresses and up­dos. Some peo­ple go full out, while oth­ers, like me, sport just enough ac­ces­sories (a straw cloche by day and a feath­ered head­band and pearls by night) to feel part of the ac­tion.

All the dress­ing up fos­ters a unique ca­ma­raderie and makes for an easy en­try point to talk to al­most any­one. One evening, as I was hang­ing out at the Ma­sonic Ho­tel bar—its re­stored artdeco de­tails and lo­ca­tion along the sea­side board­walk make it the unof­fi­cial cen­tre of the fes­tiv­i­ties—I struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with John

Hawkins, who came from Can­ter­bury, on the South Is­land, with a group of fam­ily and friends. He in­vited me across the street to check out the gi­ant an­tique Bur­rell “show­man’s” steam en­gine that he had shipped here for the event (along with one tonne of coal needed to run it for the week­end). In its day, the en­gine pro­pelled car­ni­val rides and was dec­o­rated ac­cord­ingly, with brightly painted in­sets and raised de­tails. It was just one of sev­eral vin­tage en­gines on dis­play— along with more than 400 an­tique au­to­mo­biles parked around town (an event record). Only pre-1946 ve­hi­cles deemed ap­pro­pri­ate by the lo­cal Art Deco Trust re­ceive per­mis­sion to en­ter the down­town zone dur­ing the week­end. But the re­stric­tions add to the at­mos­phere; there are no hy­brid-elec­tric ve­hi­cles in sight as peo­ple spon­ta­neously begin to dance the Charleston in the streets. “The more work you put into this week­end, the more fun you get out of it,” ex­plained Hawkins as the en­gine belched steam. “This is a feather in my cap.”

The week­end’s height of plan­ning and per­sonal ef­fort has to be the Gatsby pic­nic. The most am­bi­tious pic­nick­ers set up movieset-wor­thy dis­plays (com­plete with pe­riod cos­tumes)—and they don’t touch their tea sand­wiches and Lam­ing­ton cakes un­til the judg­ing is com­plete. The set-ups at the top sites are ex­trav­a­gant and eclec­tic—from a full Ti­tanic theme with a decked-out ship’s cap­tain drink­ing from a sil­ver tea ser­vice to a First World War Red Cross tent where uni­formed nurses and doc­tors “di­ag­nose” on­look­ers and of­fer candy “pre­scrip­tions.” The most fash­ion­able dis­play I spot­ted had to be one called “1002nd Night.” It was an homage to a 1911 Per­sian­in­spired party hosted by Paul Poiret—who, ac­cord­ing to the hand­writ­ten sig­nage, was “a fab­u­lous fash­ion designer from the early 1900s [who] launched his own ranges with out­ra­geous par­ties.” A male pic­nicker here was dressed as Poiret as the shah of Per­sia, while the women wore Poiret-in­spired dresses, and ev­ery­one sat at a ta­ble staged with hookahs and tea sets.

Not hav­ing ar­rived with my very own an­chor and all the other mak­ings of a Ti­tanic-themed pic­nic spread, my own “aha” mo­ment of per­sonal com­mit­ment to the week­end was sub­tler. At din­ner one night, where ev­ery­one was dressed up in their flap­per finest, I started chat­ting with Nerida Cortese, a dancer who’d been on New Zealand’s Danc­ing With the Stars, who would be lead­ing a Charleston dance-off the fol­low­ing day. She ex­plained how she mixed the sound­track (orig­i­nal Charleston tunes paired with’s “Bang Bang” from The Great Gatsby movie) and set the mu­sic to loop with in­creas­ing speed to match the (the­o­ret­i­cally) im­prov­ing skill lev­els of the crowd. “Let me show you,” she said, as she turned the mu­sic on and en­cour­aged ev­ery­one at the ta­ble to get up and join her. I was a bit hes­i­tant at first, but as she taught us the se­ries of stop kicks, foot lifts, jazz hands and knee crosses (my favourite move)—and as the rou­tine got faster and faster and we all laughed harder and harder—I com­pletely lost my­self in the mo­ment. With a few quick­step moves, I dis­cov­ered my own retro rhythm.

Napier, New Zealand, is one of the world’s best-pre­served artdeco mec­cas. Most of the city, in­clud­ing the Ma­sonic Ho­tel (pic­tured here), was re­built fol­low­ing an earth­quake and fire in 1931.

The Napier beach and town site (top); snapshots from ArtDeco Week­end

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