Kōrero Kākahu: New Zealand Fashion Museum and Online Collections

Kia ora! I am writing this from bed, where I have spent a lot of time recently as I finally succumbed to the dreaded cold/flu hybrid that is doing the rounds. From the comfort of my own bed also comes this month’s post about the New Zealand Fashion Museum (NZFM). The NZFM was established in February 2010 as a predominantly online venture. This is a pragmatic and reasonable decision given, as the museum say in their own words, that they choose “to be represented not by a grand building or a physical collection but rather by the quality of its research, its publications, its online museum and by its award-winning pop-up exhibitions. Acquiring and conserving fashion garments is a costly service already provided by other public and private institutions, so NZFM has opted to borrow rather than collect.” What has been created in this online space is a highly collaborative and interactive environment with a wealth of knowledge attached to each photo.

Collection page of the New Zealand Fashion Museum

Collection page of the New Zealand Fashion Museum, each image is clickable and has an explanation of the clothing, designers and history featured

Making the decision to focus on a digital collection has meant that the collections have a lasting presence. As a proponent of seeing exhibitions in real life so that I can more tangibly experience the history listed alongside, I’m surprised to find myself so won over by NZFM. In short, it is because of the permanence of it and the quality of the images. I remember going to a textiles exhibition a few years ago with a friend who worked in the clothing industry and being surprised to hear her frustrations at the dimness of lighting (a conservation-based choice) because it meant it was difficult to see the intricacies of the garments and their creation. This would not be a worry on the NZFM website, it operates similarly to an online retailer wherein hovering the mouse of clothing images provides a close-up to the details.

Up close detail of a collection item

Up close detail of a collection item

Another aspect of the website that I enjoy is the Upload section wherein members of the public are invited to upload a personal garment and its related history. Though there doesn’t appear to be much uptake in this area, the stories I have read have been very interesting and heartwarming and allude to the presence and importance of clothing as markers of moments in people’s lives. Furthermore, by introducing a more democratic offering for knowledge development like this (open to the public to contribute what is important to them about their favourite pieces of clothing with presumably lax criteria) it means that fashion histories are including the personal stories of people by their own merit not merely as illustrators of wider fashion movements. It is a grass-roots contribution where the personal is treated as importantly as the societal and cultural.

Aside from the pop-up exhibitions that show in various locations throughout New Zealand, NZFM also features online exhibitions, the most recent one titled “What to wear to the ball”. Again, utilising the online collection offers an ease of display that wouldn’t be a possibility if it were to be recreated physically. Furthermore, the exhibition doesn’t appear to be restricted by time period and all of the online collection that could be worn to a ball is featured resulting in a fascinating cross-section of clothing on offer.

The most recent online exhibition

The most recent online exhibition offering from New Zealand Fashion Museum

The last aspect of the museum that I want to highlight is its ongoing support and exposure for emerging designers. The curator and creator of the museum is former fashion designer turned fashion historian Doris de Pont and I think she should be lauded for her dedication to creating the site where there was a real gap. As part of the growing online collection, emerging designers are featured, many of whom are recently graduated or still studying. It isn’t an easy industry to make a living out of in New Zealand (is it easy anywhere?) but being given exposure from established industry names in one of the few fashion outputs in the country must be a great boost. 

In closing, check it out. There is plenty to be read, seen and enjoyed!

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.

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