At The Beach

Being summer and all, you’d think this was a post about going to the beach. But this is Wellington. Between December first and last weekend, we’ve had about five days of summer and Saturday was no exception – dark, rainy and cold.

Fortunately, The Dowse Art Museum had the antidote: the ‘At The Beach’ exhibition from the New Zealand Fashion Museum. The NZFM is an online museum, which also has exhibitions at museums and other venues, in addition to its website.

(Apologies for the phone photos – forgot my camera!)

The exhibition contained about three dozen swimsuits and outfits, as well as three photo collections and various interpretation panels. The clothes were mostly from the second half of the century, with only a few from before World War Two.

The clothes were mostly professionally made, with a few example of home-made models. I was surprised at how many of the togs (New Zealand slang for swimwear) were made right here in New Zealand! It appears we had quite the swimwear industry going.

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A variety of clothes from the 1960s

The layout of the exhibition was lovely, with plenty of room around the mannequins, so you could get around and see most aspects of the clothes. The mannequins themselves were a little knocked about; it was pretty obvious they had lived a hard life. But this seemed to work with the exhibition, which had a rather nostalgic feel.

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The interpretation panels were certainly nostalgic and I was a bit divided on how I felt about them. The historian in me was highly critical that many of the people’s stories were presented without any mention of a date, taking them completely out of their historic context. But the sewist who was escaping from the rubbish weather was happy to briefly bathe in the warmth of ‘back in the day’.


The nostalgic writing did have the problem, however, of presenting a very homogeneous view of New Zealand’s past. Everyone loved the beach, everyone always had a good time at the beach, and even the beach was a bit ‘samey’, always with white sands. I’m from Taranaki, where the sand is black. Discussions of variety of pasts and issues like body confidence would have been great, but perhaps I’m asking too much of a small exhibition. It does appear that this was a small sample of what appeared at the original exhibition in Auckland. I did buy the exhibition booklet, maybe that goes into things more deeply.

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1940s beach playsuit

All in all it was an enjoyable visit. While the exhibition at the Dowse closed on Sunday, most (if not all) of the objects and images can be seen online on the NZFM exhibition page. The photos there are from when the exhibition was set up in the National Maritime Museum, which provided an ideal backdrop, and includes many more objects.

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