A lifelong interest in clothing that’s outside the prevailing fashion has led Cathy Dunn to document an often unseen aspect of Kiwi clothing design.
As a former professional archivist, Cathy Dunn knows the value of documenting and preserving aspects of cultural history that might otherwise fade from memory. It’s especially true in the fashion sphere.
Dunn spent half a decade working at MTG (Hawkes Bay’s regional museum) and it was that experience that really sparked her interest in the history of our homegrown fashion history.
Now, through her Instagram account @nzfashionlabelarchive, she’s amassing an instantly perusable archive of an often unseen or underappreciated aspect of Kiwi clothing design: vintage New Zealand fashion labels and tags.
Dunn finds her medium of choice as she searches for gems to sell through her instagram shop @jubileevintageshop and the co-operative store The Department of Curiosities in Napier, where she sells a collection of vintage and pre-loved modern pieces.
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The page is a delightful follow for both fashion buffs and typography nerds, filled with rich and original examples of the retro serif fonts that inform swathes of nostalgic designs today.
It and other local accounts such as @vintage.nz.fashionlabels join other, internationally focused social accounts that share the typographic joy of nostalgia clothing labels, like @labeltime.
Keen to know more, I asked Dunn to share what she’s learnt during her archival process.
Where did your fascination with vintage labels originate?
I’ve always been drawn to clothing that’s outside the prevailing fashion. Mum used to dress my sisters and I in matching outfits, but soon after I started school a cousin gave me a striped singlet dress she’d grown out of, and I vividly recall the unbridled joy I felt wearing something different.
Growing up in the punk era, my schoolmates and I would scout op-shops for old petticoats and mini skirts to wear with our customised t-shirts and ripped fishnet tights.
I wanted to be able to make my own clothes and my mother didn’t sew, so I applied to Wellington Polytechnic and completed the two-year fashion course (alongside Kate Sylvester and Robyn Mathieson). We studied the history of fashion and I fell for the shapes and fabrics – and labels – of the 50s and 60s.
I was an early TradeMe user, buying and selling and accumulating a small collection of vintage pieces. I’d always ask for a photograph or description of the label, so I could verify authenticity.
What is it that appeals to you about these vintage labels? How do they differ from modern versions?
They come from a time when things were made here in New Zealand and made well, made to last. Also, fonts!
Have you noticed whether there are any design or style flourishes that were unique to local labels?
Not in the way that wool blanket labels did. I have a collection of those too, and they feature tiki and moko, along with place names like Onehunga and Mosgiel where the mills were located.
Until the late 1960s, clothing labels referenced design elements of French haute couture or British tailoring to reflect the aspirations of their wealthy customers.
Labels became more modern after Mary Quant sparked the youthquake, but still generally followed what was popular overseas.
Can you tell me about a couple of your favourite label discoveries?
An early Peppertree.
A Fidgits blouse – relatively rare now.
I’m fond of one by R&K Originals that says “For the Girl Who Knows Clothes”.
A friend has a Colin Cole garment with his hand-stitched label which I love.
I won a TradeMe auction for a Babs Radon labelled coat hanger.
From your sleuthing, can you pinpoint when the quirkiness of clothing labels dropped off? Why do you think this was?
After import licences on clothing were removed and tariffs lowered, New Zealand-based clothing factories couldn’t compete with all the cheap imported clothing, mostly from China, so by the early 2000s most had closed. This is when labels became more generic in order to cut costs.
I have to say that the good thing about modern labelling is that you’re provided with information on fabric content and care instructions.
To your professional eye, which local designers of the time had consistently good labels?
Thornton Hall, Hullabaloo, Flookies, Arrow and Lady Arrow, Miss Deb.
What contemporary brands do you think have interesting or nice labels?
I love Nope Sisters.
Is there any aspect of modern fashion that you think people will be archiving in the years to come?
Te Papa has already added Nope garments to their social history collection. I think there’ll be more emphasis on archiving the social aspect of clothing, rather than design.
The way different subcultures appropriate elements of fashion is really interesting. Also, designers and makers who repurpose fabric (like Good Daisy and Dreamcult Clothing) will likely be archived, as examples of the current response to environmental issues.