Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2016

Real Modern, Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s (2015), by Bronwyn Labrum

Read Modern

Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s by Bronwyn Labrum is a sumptuous ‘coffee-table’ book, and as the sub-title suggests, it’s a history of New Zealand life in the middle of the 20th century.  It measures 23cm x 27cm, it’s 4cm thick and it’s 427 pages long.

Just opening a page at random, I’m looking at a full colour page illustration of women’s shoes, sexy stilettos and sturdy sandals.  On the facing page there’s a page of text entitled ‘Shoe Shuffles’ and there’s a B&W photo of a mother with her two children in a shoe shop, and there’s a small colour photo of some toddlers’ shoes – cheerful red leather lace-ups from the 1950s, with a caption that explains that children wore dress shoes in daily life to go with their more formal clothing rather than the casual shoes and garments derived fro leisure wear toddlers might wear today.  This page is part of a whole chapter called Daily Dressing, which begins with this interesting introduction:

Contrary to what the available (largely black and white) imagery suggests, the clothes worn by both women and men in the 1950s and 1960s showed ‘diversity, colour and vibrancy’ and a whole repertoire of talents and abilities.

For women the array of techniques might include knife pleating, chevron quilting, French darts, draping, ruching and gathering.  Evocative styles ranged from ‘whirlpool’ brassieres to matador pants, from petal caps to bouffant skirts, and from winged reveres, to ‘disturbed’ hemlines.  Accessories might include saucer-like buttons, gold lurex stoles, kid gloves and ostrich skin handbags… For men … clothing ranges from porkpie hats to brothel creepers, from tweed hacking jackets to drainpipe trousers.

These wonderful names, some now obsolete, others still in use, conjure up a different world.  But it is not just the details and the styles that evoke the period.  They also stand in for a whole society and way of life. (p.101)

Indeed they do.  Browsing through this chapter brings back memories of what my glamorous mother used to wear during this period, which suggests to me that even then, fashion was universal, at least in the English speaking world.  The page entitled ‘A good foundation’ makes me very grateful to have escaped corsetry though I am old enough to remember that going bare-legged was a fashion no-no and a packet of nylons was a regular purchase for many women.  In fact, my first memory of standing up for myself as a proto-feminist was when I worked in the office at Myer and kept laddering my stockings on the rough edges of the cheap and scruffy desk I had.  I told them that if they weren’t going to sand the legs of my desk, then they should pay for my nylons.  They ignored me, of course, but there was full employment in those days so I simply left and got a job somewhere else – where my stockings lasted for weeks if I was careful!

This chapter traces the shifting silhouettes for women’s dresses and bathing suits, and also the shapes and fabrics used for hats and handbags, with an interesting snippet about Maori women coming to the cities in the 1960s carrying flax kete with handles – but I had to Google this word to see what they look like because there’s no illustration of these traditional woven baskets.   IMG_1415There’s not so much about menswear, but there’s a lovely page about knitting for newborns – which is a good opportunity for me to show off the little matinee jacket I knitted for one of my grand-nieces.  Today few babies wear hand-knits, but most babies of the 1950s and 1960s, like generations before them, wore home-made clothes stitched or knitted by mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other family members.  Women all over the world were kept busy knitting during the post-war baby boom, and with the end of wartime shortages of yarn (yes, even in New Zealand, with all those sheep!) knitting layettes became a popular activity. Most women (my mother included) also made their daughters’ frocks, which included a ‘best’ dress, a ‘school dress’ and a ‘town dress’.  Often the same pattern was used for all the daughters, made up in different fabrics, and I remember going to the shop to choose the material with great solemnity…

The book includes other chapters, beginning with Home Comforts which is about houses and furniture.  It’s interesting to see a photo of a woollen carpet woven with native Kiwi plants, which made me wonder if the same was done in Australia, or if the floral Axminsters I’ve seen here were all that was available.  (There was a lurid pink one in my sitting-room when I bought my current house.  That carpet was very promptly replaced by a 1970s Berber!) The book includes photos of ‘modern’ appliances now considered quaint or museum pieces (wringer washing machine anyone?) and also the gear for preserving jams and fruits.  (I still have my trusty Fowlers Vacola, but I admit I haven’t used it for a good while).  But the furniture of the 50s – and perhaps the crockery – will be very familiar to anyone who likes the retro stuff that’s around now.  However, I don’t think the beautiful linens of the period will ever make a comeback, people can’t be bothered with the laundry and the ironing of it, much less embroidering it themselves as we learned to do at school.

Gardening was different: the vegetable patch was the man’s domain, and people raised plants from seeds rather than buying punnets of ready-to-plant seedlings.  Yates was the big name in seeds then as it still is today, and Masport was the big name in lawn mowers.  The focus is mainly on conventional middle-class housing but that, the author says, is because differences in social class and regional variations are difficult to recapture in the objects and images that have survived.  The photo of people queuing up to look at display housing doesn’t seem to include any Maori, and the following chapter, Clean and Fresh doesn’t describe the sort of housing conditions I’ve read about in novels by Maori author Patricia Grace, though there is a brief reference to some pockets of disadvantage:

Yet even at the end of the 1950s, indoor plumbing and toilets were still not universal: almost 14 percent of New Zealand homes did not have piped water and nearly 20 percent did not have a flush toilet.  Residents in existing houses and flats continued to make do with more basic amenities right through the 1960s. (p.73)

So it’s important to remember that this is not a comprehensive history that covers a spectrum of different social conditions to any great extent, although the book is extensively referenced and there’s also a bibliography and an index.

What the book does cover well is gender issues.  Clean and Fresh is about how after the war years women’s role was back inside the house, looking glamorous while using cleaning products and appliances which actually increased her workload because expectations and aspirations were higher.  I was amused to see that when dishwashers became possible for the less wealthy, the advertising offered advice on how the time saved could be used to ‘play with the children … machine that new dress … talk to your husband.’

There’s lots more to this book:

  • a chapter on School Days, describing not only gender segregation and gendered curriculum but also separate Maori schools, which lasted till the 1960s; ‘uniforms and uniformity’; school milk and dental programs; and the popularity of the school banking scheme.
  • a chapter called Working Habits, which also describes the sort of gendered workplaces that were common all over the world; the ‘two-legged economy’ where the pastoral industry brought in foreign exchange and manufacturing generated the jobs to maintain full employment. Maori, migrants and (despite objections from some quarters) women joined the workforce as  New Zealand became more urbanised (a phenomenon described in Patricia Grace’s novel Cousins, as rural family life was disrupted by girls moving to work in town).  Unionism was under attack even then, and there was a clear social divide based on employment status.  A lot of work was boring and repetitive…
  • Getting Around traces developments in transport, and – as in Australia – the influence of the car on the way that cities were designed.  The car was, of course, the male’s pride and joy.  My mother was unusual amongst her peers because she always had the family car while my father took the train to work, as he always had in England.
  • Going Shopping explores the development of the consumer culture in the years after the war.  Photos in this section include quaint advertisements, and scenes from shops in those days of specialty stores and pre-supermarket grocery shopping. New Zealand went decimal in 1967, a year after Australia did, with coins that then as now look a lot like ours, and were probably exchanged by accident across the Tasman then too.
  • Fun and Games is the sort of chapter that children doing school projects about The Olden Days will enjoy.  There are pictures of all sorts of toys (mostly gendered of course), and photos of leisure activities that include picnics, spectator sports, and quaint TVs and radios.
  • Out on the Town follows this theme but begins with a droll quotation:  On her return from a trip across the Tasman in 1959, a Sydney beauty was asked ‘What did you think of New Zealand?’ ‘I don’t know,’ was her reply, ‘it was closed’.  Apparently Kiwis thought themselves unsophisticated too but there was a lot of commercial entertainment: dances, concerts and cinema; the pub of course, and for teenagers, there was a café culture in milk bars.  International pop groups toured, usually as part of a trip that included Australia, and popular musicals made their way to the major cities too.  Belonging to some sort of group was common: sporting clubs, church groups, Rotary and Lions, school committees and so on.
  • Rituals and Traditions includes the 1953 Royal Visit that made many hearts flutter, but it’s mostly about the traditions that derived from religion which was still dominant then.  Christenings and baptisms, marriages and funerals; Christmas and Easter; birthdays and wedding anniversaries; the debutante ball; and for Maori, after a 1952 change in the law which denied registration of customary Maori marriage there was often a customary union as well as a white wedding.   Hostility to inter-racial marriage was common in New Zealand, as elsewhere.   It was a conservative society, but there was also a greater sense of law-abiding community where people do not lock their doors when they go out; where cars can be left unlocked with the windows down; where bicycles can be left propped against your fence overnight.   Along with annual festivals and parades of one sort or another, and kapa haka to sustain Maori language and customs,  there were also large public funerals in this period for the death of the Prime Minister Peter Fraser, Maori leader Te Puea Herangi, the Maori King Koroki, and Prime Minister Walter Nash as well as memorials for the victims of the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster and the sinking of the Wahine in 1968.   This chapter concludes with mention of the emergence of grass roots activism and political protest in the period, which is often a feature of Patricia Grace’s novels as well, especially in Potiki.  

The author, Bronwyn Labrum, is an associate professor in the School of design at Massey university and was formerly curator of history and textiles at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Author: Bronwyn Labrum
Title: Real Modern, Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 196os
Publisher: Te Papa Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780994104175
Review copy courtesy of Te Papa Press.

Available from Fishpond: Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s


  1. Bit of a worry when your own lifetime is studied as history! Mum turned 20 in the 1950s (and by 1958 had 4 sons), I think most of her dresses came from Coles, no ‘matador pants’ for her. My only memory of NZ is a movie that used to do the rounds of all the country towns about a man in an old Vanguard car going on a long trip.


    • I know, The Spouse and I sometimes see docos made by The Young Ones now at the ABC now, and all we can do is shrug our shoulders in dismay!


  2. Memories for sure. What an idyllic time the 50s were in the U.S. I don’t think I knew anything at all about New Zealand then and not a lot about Australia for that matter. I was lucky enough to escape wearing a dreaded foundation garment since my mother didn’t bother. My college roommate wore one though and of course Grannie. Speaking of which, my other grandmother lived in the country and only had an outhouse. The only indoor plumbing was an actual hand pump in the kitchen.


    • There was a lot to like about the 50s. But it was not so great for people of colour, or people who preferred same-sex relationships, or people with disabilities. And for women who wanted more than marriage and motherhood, it was incredibly frustrating. I think we were not so aware of diversity issues then, and those voices were not heard.
      So even though we have all kinds of problems now that we’d rather not have, I think society is more inclusive and that’s a better thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press) (See my review) Te Ara Puoro: A Journey into the World of Māori Music by Richard Nunns (Potton and Burton) New […]


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