Kōrero Kākahu: Women of Empire

As a colonial nation, being in the centenary years of the Great War means a great deal to New Zealand. Just yesterday, 25 April, is known as Anzac Day and is recognised both in New Zealand and Australia as a day of remembrance for our war dead. It also means that the war-related exhibition Women of Empire: the untold stories of New Zealand and Australian women in WWI has free entry for the week so my family and I went along. The exhibition is being shown at Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, the birthplace of one of New Zealand’s most distinguished writers. Mansfield had a younger brother who was killed in the first world war and his death devastated her, which also means there was a link between the exhibition and the setting. The exhibition itself is on tour from Australia where it was assembled by Dressing Australia – The Museum of Australian Costume. I am grateful to the museum staff member for clarifying this as there was no entrance label giving an overview of the exhibition so I didn’t know where it was from or what the impetus for it was.

The outfit compiled to represent Ida Bouefve

The outfit compiled to represent Ida Bouefve.

The reason I point this out is that it was from the labels that I gleaned that the clothes on display did not indeed belong to the women, they were merely costumes chosen by the museum to represent the women. Most of the costumes were of the era but there were also some that were replicas made to patterns from the era, which I appreciate because that is a huge dedication. However, I can’t hide the fact that I was disappointed that nothing on display actually belonged to the women. 

The outfit imagined for Lady Hiria Pomare: a silk damask gown and a Liberty of London coat both from c1915.

The outfit imagined for Lady Hiria Pomare: a silk damask gown and a Liberty of London coat both from c1915.

It was when I saw the outfit that was chosen for Lady Pomare that the use of replicas stood out and this was for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I will acknowledge that a lot of research has gone into this exhibition and that each profile of the women is accompanied by photographs of either the women or ephemera related to the women from various archival institutions. As part of Lady Pomare’s profile, this photo is included from the Alexander Turnbull Library in which Lady Pomare is shown wearing a hei tiki around her neck and huia feathers in her hair. Both of these adornments are cherished taonga (objects that are sacred and are considered embodiments of ancestors) that denote the chiefly status of its wearer. It was interesting to note then that the tiki on display was plastic, something not at all befitting a woman of her stature. It was also interesting to see an article in the paper in which a Wellington woman attended the exhibition and found her great-aunt’s story on display. This made me wonder whether there was any consultation done with family members and if there had been, would they have been able to display personal artefacts more befitting the stories?

The outfit as imagined for a young girl collecting for the war horse Paeroa.

The outfit as imagined for a young girl collecting for the war horse Paeroa.

My last thoughts about the exhibition concern the curatorial editing and the nature of display. Admittedly, the house in which the exhibition was shown is beautiful and has been restored to its original layout and features many objects that belonged to Mansfield and her family. However, at some points it is more of a distraction than an enhancement to the exhibition and some rooms were not part of the exhibition which made for surprising breaks in the narrative. Also, there could have been more care taken curatorially to ensure that the exhibition fit within the house better, so that the rooms and their objects enhanced the profiles on show. I did like that the profile shown above representing the young girls who fundraised to buy a war horse was show in a children’s room that had a rocking horse in the background. However, in terms of embodying the women, I think it is important to represent them by having mannequins that look like the bodies of the women otherwise visitors can be mistaken that everyone looked the same. The most glaring example would be the outfit in the picture above. The mannequin makes the outfit look like it belongs to someone beyond the age of the girl. 

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.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.