Kōrero Kākahu: A Real feast for these Modern Eyes

On one of my many visits to my Nan, who was born in 1933, we began talking about her youth. In recounting earlier years of her life she remarked about how much pressure there was to always look perfect. She said this while eyeballing the messy bun atop my head (which was on-trend thank you Nan). I have always found this aspect of life in the 1950s and 60s is oft-lamented by women of younger generations: that image was always pristine, that women always looked elegant and put-together. This is of course, a superficial interpretation of what it was really like for women and is but one facet covered in the sumptuous new book from Te Papa Press, Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Real-Modern cover

Full disclosure: the author Bronwyn Labrum is a former lecturer of mine and I can thank her for introducing me to (or at least giving a name to) the wonder of knowing people and societies through objects otherwise known as material culture studies. As Worn Through is a website that focuses on fashion I will, as hard as this is to do because the objects featured are so intriguing, focus this review on the clothing. If you do want to explore the featured objects a little further, click here and here.


Firstly, I need to say that this is a beautiful book, from the colour palette of soft pastels to the simplistic layout of text and photographs, I am suitably impressed. The chapters, instead of being organised chronologically are instead ordered by them with Chapter 3 being titled Daily Dressing. As with the preceding chapters, there is a general introduction before objects, and their stories, are explored in further depth including personal recollections from the owners of some of the objects. It was this chapter more than any other that gave me an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia which could be conceived as unusual given that I am about fifty years too young to have experienced any of these events first-hand. However, the vast majority of the clothing featured was manufactured, worn and owned by women, and I find the clothing familiar as they feature silhouettes that I have sought in various op-shop (thrift shop or charity shop to Northern Hemisphere readers) missions, they are silhouettes that my Nan and her sisters wore in their debutante photographs that I have seen hung in frames throughout the houses of the women in the older generations in my family. The knitted layettes made for newborns mentioned in the book are similar to those that were also distributed throughout my family by my mum who was a queen knitter, and the knitting manual for booties featured elsewhere in the book is something I have a copy of and have knitted out of for friend’s babies.

Nostalgia can however, be a dangerous thing; it can be blinding and give a very subjective impression of what life was really like. This is tempered very well in Real Modern by the realism in the accompanying text. For example, I have always thought that women who wore pantyhose were so elegant in a way that I just can’t be bothered being, and so I often wear bare legs to work. In 1957 however, bare legs were not an option and schools often inspected girls uniforms to ensure that they were wearing the correct britches. Nostalgia be damned, I don’t want teaching staff inspecting my britches or those of my daughter!


A spread featuring women wearing outfits I would happily wear in 2015 and feel very fashionable doing so


One of the impressive spreads of objects that is a real feast for your eyes

Despite my suspicion of nostalgia as a vehicle for telling stories, Real Modern has provided me with a context to why my Nan judged my messy bun and why my Koro (grandfather) still dresses in his Sunday best whenever he needs to venture into town to do his business. As aforementioned, this is a sumptuous book full of beautiful objects. Though I have looked specifically at the chapter on fashion, clothing and accessories are featured throughout including within the many photographs that feature New Zealander’s going about their business. The way in which the museum and collection objects are juxtaposed with these photographs and historic text reinforce that these objects have had a life, they have stories connected with them just like those garments featured in the photographs. These images provide a depth of social context in a way that a passively displayed garment cannot and I am really happy that there is a significant mix of these images to provide profundity to the objects alongside the text and personal anecdotes. Labrum is an engaging writer and I was easily drawn into the past world that she managed to evoke. It of course helps that I have spent many hours listening to the older generations in my family regale me with their stories of youth but through Real Modern I have the chance to recreate their past when I am not around them.



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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