Kōrero Kākahu: Air New Zealand at Te Papa

The national museum, Te Papa is having a bumper year with a succession of incredibly successful exhibitions, two of which are still on show. Alongside the blockbuster that is Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War (which provides an opportunity for commemorating the centenary of the Anzac experience) is Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our nation. The world. Connected. Quite a convoluted name for an exhibition that I find to be one of the sleekest I have seen of late at Te Papa. This exhibition begins inside (I say inside as the nose of an airplane is outside the museum for visitors to take their photo inside) with a lit runway guiding visitors along a pathway to the site of the former Eyelights Gallery. Eyelights was the museum’s dedicated space for exhibitions of a textile/costume/clothing nature but has been under threat through the last couple of restructures and doesn’t appear to be entirely out of the woods. Te Papa’s recently appointed Chief Executive, Rick Ellis, cut his chops working in digital media for Australian telco Telstra and the state-owned broadcaster Television New Zealand. Ellis has come in to this position with his completely unabashed dedication to all things digital and I bring this up as, since his appointment in November 2014, it has been announced that all long-term exhibitions will be redeveloped at the cost of short-term exhibitions going ahead. What this means for a space like Eyelights that had continuous short-term exhibitions featuring clothing from the museum’s collection as well as touring exhibitions, only time will tell. What space will clothing now inhibit in the museum? How will the textiles collection continue to inform researchers and visitors alike about New Zealand history?

Exhibition entry

Exhibition entry

Back to Air NZ. The exhibition opens with a trip back in time through the past iterations of flight attendant uniforms. For the life of me I can’t understand why the uniforms are shown going back through time, as a visitor I much prefer the evolution of a story. Watching a story grow makes more sense to me, especially in this instance with a recurring theme of the exhibition being that as the airline expands, the identity it takes on is unapologetically New Zealand. As I say, the exhibition starts with a case featuring the current uniforms made by New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper and the immediate predecessors by Zambesi. Cooper’s designs reflect a functionality that should be a prerequisite of such work (as we will see, this hasn’t always been the case) and she utilised different colours to differentiate between ground staff and cabin crew. Female flight attendants were given dresses in a “twilight pink” with patterns in black that feature motifs that recall New Zealand culture e.g. the koru (this is a Māori word given to an unfurled fern frond and symbolises life) of the Air NZ logo. The male flight attendants were not so lucky, though the exhibition labels state that their uniform finally eschewed the “sober suits of the past with its lively patterns and pops of colour”, it is quite a ghastly rendering of Kiwiana kitsch. However, as functionality has increased over the years with these uniforms, so too has versatility and the males are able to pair the unfortunate waistcoat with a tie (twilight pink being an option) and a choice of either a tūī (native bird) tiepin or a Rangitoto Island tiepin. Again, the reinforcement of nationhood is inescapable.

Female flight attendant uniform

Female flight attendant uniform

Male flight attendant uniform

Male flight attendant uniform

Choice of tie and tiepins

Choice of tie and tiepins

The other outfit in this case was designed by Zambesi, one of New Zealand’s highest exporting designers and a pioneer of New Zealand fashion’s obsession with black. Their uniform however was not very well-received, with staff and customers finding the colour scheme of (here we go again with the nationhood theme) teal, pounamu (greenstone) and schist to blend into plane interiors posing too much of a safety hazard. Also, it is very bland. It did however, feature a merino (famous New Zealand wool export) wrap with a design by Māori artist Derek Lardelli reminiscent of an earlier uniform’s use of Māori motifs.

Female flight attendant uniform by Zambesi and merino wrap featuring illustration from Māori artist Derek Lardelli.

Female flight attendant uniform by Zambesi and merino wrap featuring illustration from Māori artist Derek Lardelli.

The case after this showed another New Zealand design from 1987 by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall. This time the functionality of the garment came from consultation with crew members advising the designer, who in turn incorporated an elasticated waist and neckline that could be worn buttoned up or down.

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1987 design by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall

Beside the Harris’ businesslike look is the 1976 design from Parisian designer Nina Ricci. It was quite a surprise to see that an international designer of such repute had designed for Air NZ, but she wasn’t the first (again, why did this exhibition not show in chronological order?). The design again drew cues from nature with it’s wavy blues and greens but, it did not skimp on functionality with the dress being made of hard-wearing polyester. It is interesting to note how these hues would be repeated to much less acclaim by a New Zealand designer almost 30 years later.

1976 design from Nina Ricci

1976 design from Nina Ricci

The next case (undoubtedly my favourite of the lot) highlights why the chronology of exhibition is an issue for me with the wall text saying of the National Airway Corporation and Air New Zealand’s uniforms: “This was the last time the styles would diverge. By the end of the decade, they had merged into one corporation.” This text sets you up for things to come, how will the new corporation’s uniforms reflect this merger? But instead of weaving together these stories as you go along, you have to awkwardly unpick them and remember which thread belongs where. Unfortunately, this is not the only time this happens during the exhibition either.

1976 National Airways Corporation uniform

1976 National Airways Corporation uniform

Glorious. At first glance I thought this was a jumpsuit but wasn’t too disappointed to discover that it is instead a blouse, vest and trousers made by Holeproof New Zealand. The trousers, resplendent in their 1970’s glory, were the first time that the corporation had made trousers for female staff. This is also the first time that see we a uniform utilising such a bold colour scheme with its use of primary block colours of a less natural shade. After NAC merged with Air NZ, the scarf was replaced with a similar one bearing the koru from the Air NZ logo, marketing through identity was, and still is, an important tactic for this airline.

Also in this case is a design from a Croation-born New Zealander, Vinka Lucas whose design was also made by Holeproof NZ. Lucas’ main trade was in evening and bridal gowns and her design reflected this in the blouse design on show, with it’s billowy sleeves and the tiny back buttons which the flight attendants needed help in doing up. This design shows the first time that Air NZ consciously decided to highlight it’s New Zealand-ness through the inclusion of what the text label refers to as “Māori motif”. Though delicately beautiful and reminiscent of the Lardelli illustration of 2005, I struggled to see what was particularly Māori about the design, I guess that’s what the ‘motif’ is for, a disclaimer for authenticity.

Vinka Lucas' design

Vinka Lucas’ design

The last design in this case is the most exciting of the whole exhibition and caused the largest reaction each time I saw the exhibition. From 1970, this NAC incorporated arguably the shortest hemline in the history of Air NZ uniforms. Rendered in bright colours, these outfits were show-stopping and quickly earned the nickame of ‘jellybean’ or ‘lollipop’. This was another instance where uniform was used as a marketing ploy to showcase how young and funky the airline was in a bid to attract young customers, however, functionality was sacrificed as the wall text stated that reaching into overhead lockers was an ordeal.

NAC's lollipop stewardess

NAC’s lollipop stewardess

Going from these colourful and quirky ensembles to the more demure and classic lines of the 1960’s was like drinking a tall glass of water after a few too many cocktails. The 1960s saw more people with more money taking to the skies and the airlines emulated this sense of luxury with rich designs in expensive fabrics with NAC featuring its first New Zealand designer, Babs Radon, and Air NZ (or as it was previously known, TEAL, again, you have to read the labels backwards to make sense of the name change) employing Christian Dior. These designs proved popular with staff as they were comfortable and sophisticated, I’m sure being able to wear Christian Dior to work will have helped with the popularity!

Babs Radon's 1966 design, the hat was dubbed the "mustard pot"

Babs Radon’s 1966 design, the hat was dubbed the “mustard pot”

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Christian Dior’s 1969 design featuring a hibiscus flower on the sleeves to call back to our Pacific identity

The first uniforms for the airline reflected the post-war need for safety and security, the dresses were military in form and the rules around cosmetic embellishment were military in nature. This uniform played up its military symbolism and as many flight attendants were trained as nurses, they were encouraged to wear their badges. Despite how functional it looked, the white linen could not remain crisp for a long-haul international flight and quickly sagged and got dirty.

Post-war uniform reminiscent of nursing

Post-war uniform reminiscent of nursing

Opposite the wall of cases is a wall of historic photographs featuring staff members wearing each of the uniforms. In the middle of each of these walls is a video wherein an actor, wearing a uniform from the display, has a mini monologue about what it is like to work for Air NZ. I’m not sure what these videos add to the exhibition. Being no fan of falsely constructed history, it was hard to tell whether the stories these actors were telling visitors were real stories and if they were, why didn’t they have actual former employees holding their uniforms and telling stories? The lack of authenticity in these videos I found quite annoying, I don’t think it adds anything to the story of the clothing. The most striking aspect I found that put some life into these uniforms (apart from the parts of the labels that included quotes from former staff) was seeing the name badge of a former worker. It was much easier to imagine someone walking to work through an 1970 airport just by seeing the evidence that she had been there. Sometimes it is the simple objects that can tell a complex story so much more succinctly.

An actor in uniform

An actor in uniform

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Name badge on the Dior uniform, the name can’t quite be made out

The sleekness of the exhibition’s design is echoed throughout with the clever use of the airline’s own typeface in the signage. Clever marketing isn’t new to the airline, they have utilised it throughout their history as is seen with the inclusion of many of the airline’s past travel bags in the exhibition. These show how the logo has changed throughout the airline’s history and the way in which they aid in promoting the airline with the pink travel bag below. This bag was a giveaway in a specially chartered flight taking passengers to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney one year and was a part of a full spectacular that featured drag performances, themed drinks and a cabaret by crew members. This particular pink bag was given to the Māori performer Mika.

Air NZ travel bag from 1965 - 73

Air NZ travel bag from 1965 – 73

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Teal travel bag 1961

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Air NZ travel bag with the current koru logo, from c.1986

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Themed bag from 2008

The final aspect of the exhibition that I want to cover is part of the interactive space at the end. Here there are shrunken reproductions of crew uniforms for children to wear and have their photos taken in. When I first attended the exhibition, there was a constant stream of kids playing mini pilot or mini flight attendant. The second time round the mini flight attendants were happy to walk around as if they were staff! I have seen dress-ups used in exhibitions before as a way to entice children in but often they were second-hand jackets that were adult size, having them the kids’ size made the imaginative play much more believable and I would say, much more successful.

Mini crew hats and pilot jacket

Mini crew hats and pilot jacket

I have mentioned how I think Air NZ is savvy and clever with their marketing through the continued use and promotion of their brand and I must say, the most savvy and clever marketing campaign of all has to be this exhibition. Starting with the staff clothing really set the scene for visitors to be able to imagine themselves as either a staff member or a customer and this is continued throughout the exhibition. To then bookend it with children being able to play with the uniforms was a great move and reminded you that this is a fun and luxurious airline. Not to mention the national carrier.

Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our nation. The world. Connected. is free entry and on at Te Papa until July 26th.

A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.

All photos by me.

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