5-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.periph.5-1.4 | Per­ry PDF


“He told me I didn’t look like I was from Welling­ton,” a friend, from a small town almost two hours away, con­fid­ed to me over a cock­tail in a down­town bar. This arti­cle asks, what is the Welling­ton look that this state­ment describes? How does it pro­duce and reflect Wellington’s rep­u­ta­tion as the locus of arts and pol­i­tics in Aotearoa/New Zealand? It exam­ines how the inhab­i­tants of Welling­ton weave the fab­ric of the city togeth­er through their dress, ana­lyz­ing how Welling­ton-based media, bou­tiques, design­ers, and locals togeth­er cre­ate a style that is dis­tinc­tive­ly ‘Welling­ton.’

“Il m’a dit que je n’avais pas l’air de venir de Welling­ton.” C’est ce qu’une amie venant d’une petite ville à deux heures de Welling­ton m’a con­fié il y a quelques années alors que nous parta­gions des cock­tails dans un bar local. Cet arti­cle s’interroge: de quel aspect de Welling­ton est-il ques­tion dans une telle affir­ma­tion? En quoi exprime-t-il une idée de Welling­ton comme cen­tre artis­tique et poli­tique de Aotearoa/­Nou­velle-Zélande? On y exam­ine en par­ti­c­uli­er com­ment les habi­tants de Welling­ton définis­sent leur iden­tité urbaine à tra­vers leur style ves­ti­men­taire, à tra­vers l’analyse des façons dont les bou­tiques et fab­ri­cants de Welling­ton créent un style qui se voudrait idio­syn­crasie.

Felic­i­ty Per­ry | inde­pen­dent researcher

Black Wool and Vintage Shoes:
The Wellington Look

I love this city, the hills, the har­bour, the wind that blasts through it. I love the life and pulse and activ­i­ty, and the warm decrepi­tude… there’s always an edge here that one must walk which is sharp and pre­car­i­ous, requir­ing vig­i­lance.
Patri­cia Grace, Cousins (1992)

Too much black!” the mas­sage ther­a­pist sum­ma­rized. Lying naked while the ther­a­pist gave her damn­ing opin­ion of Welling­ton as a city drained of colour­ful dress, I felt sheep­ish as I went to pay, ful­ly dressed in black. Of course I was. I’m a Welling­ton­ian. I was born in Welling­ton city, but left when I was a babe. I returned at the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, six­teen years old and alone, to find my birth­place filled with inhab­i­tants that appeared as though they had stepped off a fic­tion­al 1960s space sta­tion with their sil­ver and black garb and asym­met­ri­cal hair­cuts. Hav­ing spent my life in both Syd­ney (Aus­tralia) and in the provin­cial New Zealand town of Hast­ings, it struck me that Welling­to­ni­ans dressed like no group I had seen. What are the cul­tur­al matrices––the “very spe­cial cir­cum­stances” as Christo­pher Bre­ward (11) terms the emo­tion­al, eco­nom­ic and aes­thet­ic fac­tors that pro­duce London’s fashion––that shape the dress prac­tices of Welling­to­ni­ans? This arti­cle explores the “spe­cial cir­cum­stances” of the Welling­ton look through an exam­i­na­tion of my per­son­al expe­ri­ences of hav­ing “live[d] the city” (Don­ald 8), the “arts of exis­tence” (Fou­cault, Use of Plea­sure, 10) of young Welling­to­ni­ans as they (per)form their iden­ti­ties in and through the ‘ethics’ of the city, and the work of three Welling­ton-based fash­ion design­ers. I take inspi­ra­tion from Susan Ingram and Kat­ri­na Sark’s book Berlin­er Chic and their asser­tion, fol­low­ing the work of Ulrich Lehmann, that the dis­tinc­tive­ness of place mat­ters (17, my empha­sis). Through Lehmann, Ingram and Sark remind read­ers that Paris is not Berlin is not Prague (17). Or, to locate this phrase with­in the tra­jec­to­ries of both col­o­niza­tion and my child­hood, Welling­ton is not Syd­ney is not Hast­ings is not Lon­don.

Wellington: The “Best Little Capital”

This arti­cle con­cen­trates its analy­sis on the inhab­i­tants of the Welling­ton city cen­tre. While I attempt to cap­ture Wellington’s cul­tur­al speci­fici­ty, it is impor­tant to note that the city is always in flux, and, as such, “hov­ers beyond the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sim­ple rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but is nev­er yet reducible to a series of sim­u­lacra” (Wol­freys 7). Traces between insti­tu­tions, cli­mate, bou­tiques, design­ers, and the pop­u­lace of the city can be made.

Like many cities in the West, Welling­ton has been gen­tri­fied. Refur­bished pris­tine her­itage build­ings hous­ing Non-Gov­ern­ment Organ­i­sa­tions bor­der one end of the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, while glass and steel build­ings bear­ing the names of multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions reflect the sky at the oth­er end of the city cen­tre, push­ing into the Par­lia­ment build­ings in a fit­ting trib­ute to the work that suc­ces­sive neolib­er­al gov­ern­ments have done to accom­mo­date these cor­po­ra­tions. The work­ers’ cot­tages have been removed and the sub­stan­dard hous­ing and rumoured drug dens of the cen­tral city have long been replaced by fast-food joints, fine-din­ing estab­lish­ments, and ele­gant bars. The con­tem­po­rary inhab­i­tants of the city are over­whelm­ing­ly mid­dle class, and pre­dom­i­nant­ly white. They work in and fre­quent the offices, gov­ern­ment build­ings, art gal­leries, bou­tiques, cafes, and schools of the city.

The cap­i­tal of New Zealand, Welling­ton is known for its wind and for its bee­hive-shaped Par­lia­ment. It is a small city, with a pop­u­la­tion of 205,000 (“Facts and Fig­ures”). The city cen­tre can be tra­versed by a brisk walk­er in just over half an hour. Wellington’s cli­mate is ‘mild’ if the fero­cious wind that often whips through the city is ignored. Tem­per­a­tures rarely rise above 25 degrees Cel­sius, or below zero degrees. Welling­ton is the site of New Zealand’s nation­al muse­um and archives, as well as the site of nation­al gov­er­nance. It is not a city that pop­u­lates fash­ion dis­course. Indeed there are t-shirts avail­able in the tra­di­tion­al­ly work­ing-class cen­tral sub­urb of New­town mak­ing light of this point, insert­ing the sub­urb com­i­cal­ly into the famil­iar fash­ion city roll: “Lon­don, Paris, Milan, New York, New­town.” While Welling­ton is not insti­tu­tion­al­ly estab­lished on the fash­ion cal­en­dar, hold­ing its first fash­ion week in 2012, it is a city of style. This can be seen not only in the dress of Welling­to­ni­ans, but in the city’s dis­tinc­tive archi­tec­ture and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of art gal­leries, libraries, and muse­ums that show­case visu­al cul­ture.

The pre­dom­i­nant colour palette of Welling­ton dress is dark; black fills the cafes and offices of the city. Black is a colour that can at once mark the wear­er as an insid­er and an out­sider. Cross­ing class and gen­der lines, black allows the wear­er to tra­verse mul­ti­ple sites and mul­ti­ple sub­ject posi­tions, many seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry. It is the colour of New Zealand’s nation­al sports teams (giv­ing the All Blacks rug­by team its name, for instance) and it is the colour asso­ci­at­ed with intel­lec­tu­als, anar­chists, Māori­tan­ga, artists, office work­ers (who are fre­quent­ly referred to as ‘suits’), bik­ers, and punk, goth, emo, and met­al sub­cul­tures. This man­i­fold and expand­ing rela­tion­ship between black and mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties is par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in Welling­ton where­by a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the inhab­i­tants are pub­lic ser­vants who must enact the poli­cies of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments and are con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ed to remain seem­ing­ly polit­i­cal­ly neu­tral. Black allows such work­ers to fit into both their ‘neu­tral’ work iden­ti­ties and their less-neu­tral post-work lives. Black sig­nals both cat­e­gor­i­cal and onto­log­i­cal iden­ti­ty, includ­ing, at times, New Zealand’s nation­al iden­ti­ty.

Uti­liz­ing the con­no­ta­tions of the colour black, Welling­ton pro­duces itself as sophis­ti­cat­ed, intel­lec­tu­al and cre­ative. An exam­ple of this pro­duc­tion can be seen in the nation­al tele­vi­sion cam­paign and web­site devel­oped by Pos­i­tive­ly Welling­ton Tourism (fund­ed by Welling­ton busi­ness­es with sup­port from Welling­ton City Coun­cil). The web­site terms Welling­ton the “cap­i­tal of cool,” link­ing “cool” with the cul­tur­al ele­ments of Welling­ton, telling browsers that the city is “home to Par­lia­ment, the Muse­um of New Zealand Te Papa, a thriv­ing film indus­try, and heaps of oth­er cool stuff” (Welling​tonNZ​.com). The website’s tele­vi­sion advert, with its moody vio­lin-based elec­tron­ic sound­track and dis­solv­ing shot tran­si­tions nar­rates a week­end away for two, pre­sent­ing Welling­ton as an edgy city laced with sex, cof­fee, art and jazz.

This empha­sis on Welling­ton as “cool” is also evi­dent in dis­course about the city by its inhab­i­tants. The city makes much of the fact that Welling­ton­ian film direc­tor Peter Jack­son is based there and con­se­quent­ly Hol­ly­wood stars often migrate from the cen­tre of ‘glob­al’ film pro­duc­tion to the periph­ery, pop­u­lat­ing Welling­ton as they take part in Jackson’s films.[1] Unlike the New Zealand gov­ern­ment, Welling­to­ni­ans are wel­com­ing of these actors but do not gush over them. There is a sense of pride in “stay­ing cool” and treat­ing celebri­ties like every­one else. A myth oft repeat­ed in the halls of the hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try is typ­i­cal of this atti­tude. The sto­ry tells of how an exclu­sive and hard-to-find bar turned away Liv Tyler when she was film­ing the Lord of the Rings because she did not have the cor­rect iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to prove that she was of the legal drink­ing age (18 years old). Such behav­iour belies a desire to not buy into the hype asso­ci­at­ed with Hollywood’s com­mer­cial­ism. This is exhib­it­ed by Peter Jack­son him­self, who reg­u­lar­ly dress­es-down for red car­pet events, thumb­ing his nose at Hol­ly­wood glam­our.

Welling­to­ni­ans posi­tion the city as priv­i­leg­ing “arts and cul­ture” rather than the com­mer­cial. Although the multi­na­tion­al chains Star­bucks and Block­buster make appear­ances here, Welling­to­ni­ans pre­fer to get cof­fee from a bou­tique fair-trade roast­er and their DVDs from an inde­pen­dent retail­er. Rest­ing on its the­atres, cafes, libraries, bars, and large design and music aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions, Welling­ton both sets itself apart from Auck­land, the oth­er major city in the North Island, and against the small provin­cial towns of New Zealand which are based pri­mar­i­ly around agri­cul­ture, viti­cul­ture, or forestry. The com­mer­cial Auck­land, the agri­cul­tur­al provinces, and Hol­ly­wood, are the Oth­ers against which Welling­ton con­structs its iden­ti­ty.

This con­struc­tion of Welling­ton as the “cul­tured” city in com­par­i­son to the com­mer­cial and provin­cial Oth­er was appar­ent in the dis­course of stu­dents at the city’s name­sake high school, its only non-uni­formed and co-edu­ca­tion­al sec­ondary school. I inter­viewed five focus groups of stu­dents, each made up of a pre-exist­ing friend­ship group.[2] Three of the focus groups were sin­gle-sex (two female, one male), and two of the groups were mixed-sex. The par­tic­i­pants, 24 in total, were stu­dents from year 10 to year 13 (aged 14 to 17), with vary­ing class, racial, and sex­u­al iden­ti­ties. I met with each group three times, except for Group Two, whom I met with four times as, due to their long enthu­si­as­tic respons­es and debates, they took longer to dis­cuss each top­ic than the oth­er groups. The focus group dis­cus­sions were designed to facil­i­tate talk about iden­ti­ty: how the stu­dents see them­selves, think oth­ers see them, and the tech­niques (with par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to dress prac­tices) they enact to shape their own and oth­ers’ views of them­selves. Focus groups demon­strate what cul­tur­al the­o­rists Deb­o­rah Epstein and Richard John­son (100-1) term the “sit­u­at­ed­ness” of iden­ti­ty pro­duc­tion, that is, its con­stant pro­duc­tion through prac­tice and dis­course, which is influ­enced by the spa­tial-tem­po­ral loca­tion of the sub­ject and whom she is inter­act­ing with. Focus groups, then, allowed me an oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage with the iden­ti­ty pro­duc­tion of young Welling­to­ni­ans at close range.

The stu­dents sit­u­at­ed Auck­land as the home of com­merce, oppo­si­tion­al to Wellington’s posi­tion as the home of art and gov­ern­ment. Stu­dents spoke of vis­it­ing Auck­land and small provin­cial towns and feel­ing “out of place,” too dif­fer­ent from the inhab­i­tants in their age group. The stu­dents under­stood Welling­ton to be a place of het­ero­gene­ity where dif­fer­ence is val­ued. Their visions of Auck­land and of New Zealand’s provinces posi­tion these “oth­er” places as sites of homo­gene­ity where inhab­i­tants are required to dress in a man­ner that reflects the com­mer­cialised trends avail­able on high street since dif­fer­ence is not wel­comed. The stu­dents have a sense of pride based on dress­ing out­side of trends and relate this to being from Welling­ton, a city they for­mu­late as fos­ter­ing diver­si­ty. Yet, many Welling­to­ni­ans do shop at high street stores and thus arguably wear trend-based items. The stu­dents demon­strate, then, the famil­iar notion that “[w]hat is dis­owned, feared, and denied in the self is pro­ject­ed onto anoth­er being or group. The oth­er is then stig­ma­tized and warred against” (Caputi 14). The uptake of styles offered by chain stores is not includ­ed in dom­i­nant dis­course on Welling­ton as such behav­iour must be mis­recog­nised in order for Wellington’s iden­ti­ty posi­tion as ‘nur­tur­ing dif­fer­ence’ to be secure­ly pro­duced.

The con­tra­dic­tions that per­vade the city mean that Welling­ton needs to con­stant­ly reas­sure itself of its cos­mopoli­tan sta­tus. While most of its inhab­i­tants may fos­ter a non­cha­lant atti­tude to stars, many Welling­ton-based pro­duc­ers make it known when Hollywood’s stars like their prod­uct. Much is made, for instance, of Liv Tyler’s love for the prod­ucts of bou­tique facial­ist and skin­care guru Mar­garet Hema (“Press”), and the bou­tique cloth­ing stores and cafes that Miran­da Kerr and Orlan­do Bloom fre­quent (“Orlan­do Bloom Win­ter Shop­ping in Welly”). Sev­er­al restau­rants also have pho­tos on their walls of Lord of the Rings stars enjoy­ing the food at the estab­lish­ment. Fur­ther, when Welling­ton was named the “coolest lit­tle cap­i­tal in the world” by Lone­ly Plan­et in late 2010, the acco­lade was splashed across mul­ti­ple city news­pa­pers as front-page news (Stew­art; “Lone­ly Plan­et Acclaim”; “Trav­el Guide Extols”). It seems that this lit­tle city is reliant on big voic­es to affirm its image as a world­ly city.

This cen­tre-direct­ed per­spec­tive fos­ters what I term a “cul­ture of cri­tique” in Welling­ton, where­by Welling­to­ni­ans judge restau­rants, politi­cians, cafes, art, trans­port, and fash­ion in line with an imag­ined (wealthy, West­ern) city stan­dard. This cri­tique helps Welling­to­ni­ans jus­ti­fy their city as the best in New Zealand, indeed, as the “best lit­tle cap­i­tal” (“Lone­ly Plan­et Acclaim”). This cri­tique is influ­enced by sev­er­al fac­tors: that the nation­al Par­lia­ment sits in Welling­ton; that Welling­ton has the high­est pro­por­tion of inhab­i­tants with a post-sec­ondary school qual­i­fi­ca­tion of any city in New Zealand (33% of Wellington’s inhab­i­tants have a Bach­e­lors degree) (“Facts and Fig­ures”); and that the city has more cafes and restau­rants per capi­ta than New York City (Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion of New Zealand). These fac­tors help to pro­duce Welling­to­ni­ans as dis­cern­ing food­ies and politi­cos. They know their mac­chi­a­to from their mochac­ci­no, their roti from their naan; they know bills from Acts, and elect­ed mem­bers of par­lia­ment from mem­bers on a par­ty list seat. This cul­ture of cri­tique is reflect­ed in and pro­duced by the mul­ti­ple free-to-access Welling­ton-based blogs and news­pa­pers that pro­vide infor­ma­tion on pro­posed gov­ern­ment and coun­cil pol­i­cy changes and review Wellington’s cafés, bars, restau­rants, the­atre, and art. It is also reflect­ed in the fierce debates found through­out the city regard­ing the best cafés, and, impor­tant­ly, the best cof­fee beans. The Min­istry of Cul­ture and Her­itage web­site, New Zealand His­to­ry Online asserts that one bad cof­fee will mean that a Welling­ton­ian will not return to that café, such is the val­ue placed on good espres­so in the city (“Welling­ton Café Cul­ture”). This care regard­ing pol­i­tics and what is imbibed, where, is one afford­ed by being mid­dle class and edu­cat­ed. It also demon­strates the impor­tance placed on the care of the self (Fou­cault 1988): on what one does, where one goes, one’s rela­tion­ship to pol­i­tics and the law, and what one puts into one’s body. Thus cri­tique is relat­ed to the con­struc­tion of the iden­ti­ty of the per­son per­form­ing the cri­tique, as well as to the ‘ethics’ (Fou­cault 1985) attached to place. To be a ‘true’ Welling­ton­ian is to be crit­i­cal.

Wellington’s well-cul­ti­vat­ed rep­u­ta­tion as the cul­tur­al cap­i­tal draws peo­ple to the intel­lec­tu­al, artis­tic, and culi­nary city, ensur­ing that its rep­u­ta­tion is cement­ed by its inhab­i­tants. Indeed, it was this dis­cur­sive rep­u­ta­tion that enticed me back to the city that birthed me. My alien­ation from the provin­cial cul­ture of Hast­ings, a con­ser­v­a­tive town at the cen­tre of New Zealand’s fruit and wine indus­tries, led me to move alone to Welling­ton when I was six­teen. The pres­ti­gious ter­tiary insti­tu­tions in the city focused on design, art, and pol­i­tics also act as draw­ing cards for peo­ple intent on prac­tis­ing cri­tique. These insti­tu­tions inter­pel­late stu­dents into the dual sub­ject posi­tions of crit­i­cal thinker and pro­duc­er com­mon­ly occu­pied by the Welling­ton­ian, and ensure that there is a large amount of non-com­mer­cial stu­dent-pro­duced art, fash­ion and music in Welling­ton, help­ing the city to be the “cap­i­tal of cool.”

Wellington Dress

This empha­sis on cri­tique, on pol­i­tics, design, and art pro­duces a dom­i­nant dress cul­ture unlike that found in the provinces, or in Auck­land or Christchurch. Peo­ple wear­ing a mix of vin­tage and new, design­er with high-street clothes in a dark palette fill the city’s streets, cafes and offices. In line with the pro­duc­tion of Welling­ton as ‘not com­mer­cial,’ the Welling­ton ‘look’ is not pre­dom­i­nant­ly trend-dri­ven. City dwellers often allude to fash­ion­able styles rather than embrace them in a homoge­nous man­ner. Many of the design­ers that are worn in Welling­ton are con­cep­tu­al rather than trend-based, pro­duc­ing clothes that nur­ture the cere­bral rather than sim­ply mim­ic cat­walk looks from Europe. Appear­ing some­what orig­i­nal is impor­tant in Welling­ton. This is achieved pre­dom­i­nant­ly through the mix­ing of sec­ond hand or vin­tage items with high-end or high-street items to cre­ate a look unique to the wear­er. In part, this mix of old and new, design­er and chain store, could be attrib­uted to the small size of Welling­ton. Com­bin­ing these ele­ments lessens the chance that a per­son might be in the same place with some­one who is dressed in the same out­fit. In addi­tion, the high use of pub­lic trans­port in Wellington—higher than any city in New Zealand (“Facts and Stats”)—means that inhab­i­tants are often in close prox­im­i­ty with each oth­er with time to eval­u­ate each other’s style. This fur­ther dri­ves the cul­ture of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.

This cul­ture of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is demon­strat­ed by the young Welling­to­ni­ans I met with at the city’s main high school. The stu­dents over­whelm­ing­ly view being unique as pos­i­tive. For most of the stu­dents, the more dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed they can be from oth­ers, the bet­ter. The mem­bers of Group One, for exam­ple, describe how when they were younger very few of their peers dyed their hair, so when they dyed their hair, they “felt real­ly cool!” This ‘cool­ness’ is based on being dif­fer­ent from their peers. Group One laments how it is much hard­er to stand out today because most of their friends use hair dye. In Group Four, stu­dent Lance reports how he is “safe” in Welling­ton if he wears the sports jer­sey asso­ci­at­ed with a rug­by team in a province more than 300km away rather than the jer­sey for the Welling­ton team. This recourse to safe­ty is reliant on this student’s desire to be dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. Many of the stu­dents assert that they “don’t like blend­ing in.” Stu­dent Neve, in Group Three, states that sub­jects want to be seen as indi­vid­u­als because “you want to be inter­est­ing and dif­fer­ent than every­one else, you know?” To be dif­fer­ent, then, is to be “inter­est­ing” and “cool,” and con­se­quent­ly to be a valu­able sub­ject. Or, in the words of Group One, to be dif­fer­ent is to “win at life.” Thus, the very act of liv­ing is entwined with being dif­fer­ent for the stu­dents.

Indeed, the stu­dents asso­ciate appear­ing dif­fer­ent­ly from oth­ers with authen­tic iden­ti­ty, with liv­ing ‘true’ to the self. The stu­dents posi­tion iden­ti­ty as based on expe­ri­ences, back­ground, and emo­tions. They believe that no one has the same iden­ti­ty as any­one else and posi­tion dress as both reflect­ing and pro­duc­ing iden­ti­ty. For the stu­dents, then, because “every­one is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent,” every­one will look dif­fer­ent when they are dress­ing as them­selves. Because of this, the stu­dents asso­ciate appear­ing “too sim­i­lar” to oth­ers with inau­then­tic­i­ty. This fuels the young Welling­to­ni­ans’ desire to look dif­fer­ent from oth­ers.

The stu­dents also link inau­then­tic­i­ty with the com­mer­cial, a notion that is also present in the dis­course of old­er Welling­to­ni­ans. ‘Real’ cof­fee and food are not pro­cured from Star­bucks or McDon­alds. The stu­dents con­ceive of com­mer­cial cul­ture as pro­mot­ing homo­gene­ity, and thus inau­then­tic­i­ty. The par­tic­i­pants’ neg­a­tive view of the main­stream is a result of the high val­ue they place on unique­ness. This view is present in the stu­dents’ con­cep­tion of main­stream media texts, which they crit­i­cize for not fea­tur­ing a broad spec­trum of appear­ances as desir­able and pre­sent­ing a homoge­nous ide­al that most men and women will not achieve. They argue that in the process of try­ing to achieve this ide­al, sub­jects become sim­i­lar and thus their selves and their self-expres­sions become less authen­tic. The stu­dents posi­tion them­selves as crit­i­cal of the ideals of com­mer­cial cul­ture. They view those that accept these ideals with­out ques­tion as ‘duped’ by the media, and as belong­ing in com­mer­cial Auck­land rather than intel­lec­tu­al ‘diverse’ Welling­ton.

The stu­dents use many strate­gies to ensure that they look dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. These tech­niques include the con­scious embod­i­ment of an unusu­al style—in black-ori­ent­ed Welling­ton, the wear­ing of as much colour as pos­si­ble, or dress­ing more for­mal­ly than oth­er young adults, for instance; shop­ping at oppor­tu­ni­ty shops (thrift stores) or online auc­tion sites where the clothes are sec­ond-hand; con­fronting friends who appear to ‘copy’ their style; con­struct­ing their own clothes and alter­ing bought items; lying to oth­ers about where cloth­ing items were pur­chased to pre­vent inquisi­tors from buy­ing those items; buy­ing cloth­ing from shops out­side of New Zealand or online from over­seas-based web­sites; and attempt­ing to avoid shops fre­quent­ed by young adults. Trou­bling the stu­dents’ notion that dif­fer­ence occurs sim­ply by “being your­self,” these tech­niques illus­trate that dif­fer­ence must be worked at to be achieved and main­tained. These prac­tices of “being your­self” involve choice and restric­tion; they are ‘tech­niques of the self’ (Fou­cault, Use of Plea­sure, 10), which form and show­case the way the young per­son thinks of her­self and her posi­tion in rela­tion to the ethics of the city. The use of colour by the stu­dents is par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ti­nent in its resis­tance to the cul­ture of dress of old­er Welling­to­ni­ans. This fore­grounds resis­tance to norms as a tech­nique of the self. In this way the stu­dents can be ‘dif­fer­ent’ from the city’s visu­al mode, and posi­tion them­selves ‘out­side’ of the adult-city. Yet through this colour­ful resis­tance the stu­dents con­tin­ue to uphold the pre­vail­ing ethics of the city that con­struct Welling­ton as a site of cre­ativ­i­ty and anti-com­mer­cial­ism.

Due to their abil­i­ty to pro­duce dif­fer­ence, ‘vin­tage’ clothes are a large part of the Welling­ton look. Wear­ing vin­tage, that is, items made in an era oth­er than the one they are worn in, is an easy way for an indi­vid­ual to appear indi­vid­ual. Giv­en that vin­tage cloth­ing is usu­al­ly sold sep­a­rate­ly from the iden­ti­cal pieces man­u­fac­tured at the same time, it is unlike­ly that the same two vin­tage items of cloth­ing will be easy to pur­chase in Welling­ton. Vin­tage stores line one of the most pop­u­lar shop­ping streets in the city, sell­ing good qual­i­ty wear sourced from New Zealand and over­seas, usu­al­ly at high prices. These shops are so pop­u­lar they have spawned shops along the same street that appear to sell vin­tage cloth­ing, but on clos­er inspec­tion sell clothes that only appear to be from the era they emu­late, allud­ing in a hyper­re­al fash­ion to the style of the time. These ‘retro’ shops do not sell one-offs, how­ev­er, and are thus not as well posi­tioned to pro­vide the buy­er with a unique look.

As well as vin­tage shops, more acces­si­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty (thrift) shops line the edges of the city. These sell sec­ond-hand clothes and shoes, which have been donat­ed by city-dwellers rather than curat­ed with an eye for fash­ion by store buy­ers. Shop­ping at these stores allows the buy­er to hunt for items that will help them to cre­ate unique out­fits. Often these items will need some cus­tomi­sa­tion. This oper­ates in line with the mytho­log­i­cal New Zealand trait of ‘inge­nu­ity’ and the DIY (‘Do It Your­self’) cul­ture fos­tered through ear­ly colo­nial set­tle­ment. DIY occurs both in the act of find­ing the clothes them­selves amongst the out-of-shape, fad­ed, poor­ly made and poor­ly cared for fast fash­ion of trends gone by, and in alter­ing the clothes so they fit.

Arguably the propen­si­ty for vin­tage and sec­ond-hand cloth­ing in Welling­ton is also relat­ed to the desire by some res­i­dents to not sup­port sweat­shop labour and poor envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices. The notion of ‘fair trade’ and of pro­duc­ers being paid a just price for their goods and labour is fre­quent­ly referred to through­out the city. There are large adverts in the city’s free news­pa­pers tout­ing the fair trade sta­tus of goods; there are signs in a high pro­por­tion of the city’s cafes advis­ing the fair trade cof­fee with­in; and there is a pop­u­lar shop that sells only fair­ly trad­ed prod­ucts. The pop­u­lar­i­ty of fair­ly trad­ed goods is relat­ed to the amount of dis­course about the labour of major­i­ty-world work­ers that is avail­able in the city, cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment where, for the lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­al class­es of Wellington’s CBD, to will­ing­ly not buy fair trade cof­fee (at least) is a moral crime. The pen­chant for sec­ond-hand clothes could also be relat­ed to envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns as well as con­cern for the well being of the man­u­fac­tur­ers of prod­ucts. Welling­ton city fos­tered the high­est per­cent­age of urban sup­port in New Zealand for the envi­ron­men­tal­ist Green Par­ty in the 2011 elec­tion, with 27.7% of vot­ers giv­ing their bal­lot to the par­ty, com­pared with 22.8% of vot­ers in Auck­land cen­tral and 16.3% in Christchurch (Ng). Buy­ing cloth­ing sec­ond-hand works to reduce the amount of cloth­ing pro­duced and thus the amount of envi­ron­men­tal dam­age cloth­ing pro­duc­tion incurs, as well as ensur­ing that the com­pa­nies prof­it­ing from the sweat­ed labour pro­duc­tion are not receiving—however small—money from the shopper’s wal­let.

It is black, as well as vin­tage, that dom­i­nates Wellington’s fash­ion land­scape. This dom­i­nance trou­bles the stu­dents’ strong asser­tions about dif­fer­ence and authen­tic­i­ty in the city. The con­nec­tion of black with so many iden­ti­ty groups, out­lined in the first sec­tion of this arti­cle, may help to explain why black does not seem to be sub­ject to the scruti­ny of unique­ness that oth­er colours are held to. While in Welling­ton it may be impor­tant that (out­side of wear­ing a uni­form) a per­son is not dressed in the same colours as some­one close by, the wear­ing of black by many peo­ple in the same vicin­i­ty is accept­able as it can link mul­ti­ple wear­ers to var­ied iden­ti­ty posi­tions. Fur­ther dri­ving this accept­abil­i­ty is the notion that black is uni­ver­sal­ly flat­ter­ing and styl­ish, suit­able for every­one and for most sit­u­a­tions. Black can be seen as—to use the words of Georg Sim­mel on fashion—“a social obe­di­ence, which at the same time is a form of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion” (297).

Fur­ther, black is the colour asso­ci­at­ed with New Zealand fash­ion. This con­nec­tion was her­ald­ed by Mag­gie Alder­son, fash­ion writer for the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, who declared at Syd­ney Fash­ion Week in 1998 that New Zealand is “the new Bel­gium” and Zambe­si, known for its dark palette, is “New Zealand’s answer to Dries van Noten” (Reg­nault 204). Con­tin­u­ing the com­par­i­son between Aus­tralian and New Zealand fash­ion, Mar­cus von Ack­er­mann, fash­ion direc­tor for Vogue Paris stat­ed, “New Zealan­ders have a dark­er out­look, less show-offy, more intel­lec­tu­al” (204). Ackermann’s asser­tion is oft repeat­ed in the New Zealand media and by local design­ers. The asso­ci­a­tion between New Zealand and dark­ness was cement­ed when Karen Walk­er, Zambe­si, NomD, and World – dubbed the ‘New Zealand Four’ – showed for the first time at Lon­don Fash­ion Week in 1999. Karen Walk­er asserts of New Zealand film, paint­ings, fash­ion, and song writ­ing, “there’s a heavy, omi­nous, slight­ly restrained kind of feel. And I think that comes from our cul­ture and our land­scape and just the per­son­al­i­ty of the coun­try. There’s a heav­i­ness to it” (Reg­nault 207). Cer­tain­ly, dress donned by Welling­to­ni­ans is often dark and intel­lec­tu­al, or, as The Times’ (Lon­don) fash­ion crit­ic Lisa Arm­strong terms New Zealand fash­ion, more Jean-Paul Sartre than Paris Hilton (12).

As Ack­er­mann per­ceived, much of New Zealand fash­ion is not about cash-flash­ing, in-your-face flaunt­ing of bod­i­ly or mon­e­tary assets. Stand­ing out from the crowd is not some­thing that is encour­aged in New Zealand cul­ture. This has an his­tor­i­cal anchor in Aotearoa New Zealand, relat­ed both to the set­tle­ment goal of the New Zealand Com­pa­ny (the pri­vate orga­niz­er of Eng­lish set­tle­ment of New Zealand) to cre­ate a coun­try with an egal­i­tar­i­an ethos, one that was not divid­ed by class; and to Māori culture’s empha­sis on the com­mu­nal rather than the indi­vid­ual. Indeed, there is an Antipodean habit of cut­ting suc­cess­ful peo­ple down, known as ‘Tall Pop­py Syn­drome.” A ‘tall pop­py’ is a “priv­i­leged or dis­tin­guished per­son” (“Tall Pop­py”). The Roman tyrant Tar­quin reput­ed­ly struck off the heads of pop­pies as a graph­ic demon­stra­tion of the way in which the “impor­tant” men of a cap­tured city should be treat­ed (ibid.). Tall Pop­py Syn­drome refers to a ten­den­cy to dis­cred­it or dis­par­age peo­ple who have become rich, famous, or social­ly promi­nent, that is, those that stand out from the crowd. Black is a colour that lessens the ‘pea­cock effect,’ hid­ing tall pop­pies. As New Zealand design­er James Dob­son states, black “nev­er over­pow­ers” (Reg­nault 210). Due to black’s seem­ing uni­ver­sal­i­ty, it is a ‘safe’ choice, allow­ing the wear­er to be sim­i­lar yet dif­fer­ent to oth­ers in the milieu.

The rela­tion­ship between black and New Zealand extends beyond the colonis­ing New Zealand Company’s dri­ve for egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Black also lies at the foun­da­tion of West­ern cloth­ing in Aotearoa New Zealand. The first Euro­pean set­tlers here were Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies, who wore black cler­i­cal dress (de Pont 10). Lat­er, when the main wave of set­tler migra­tion to New Zealand from Eng­land occurred dur­ing the 1860s, black was de rigueur through­out Eng­land and its colonies, reflect­ing Queen Victoria’s mourn­ing dress (11). Many Māori adapt­ed Vic­to­ri­an dress in black. Addi­tion­al­ly, for set­tlers, black’s abil­i­ty to hide dirt made it a use­ful colour to wear when work­ing the land. It is no sur­prise that the uni­form of the nation­al rug­by team in 1884 was fab­ri­cat­ed in black (Palen­s­ki 110), insti­tu­tion­al­is­ing the con­nec­tion of New Zealand and the colour.

Today, the dark palette of New Zealand fash­ion is mir­rored in the bars and cafes of Welling­ton rather than mud­dy fields. Dark wood tables with deep black leather booths and dim light­ing cre­ate the dens where Welling­to­ni­ans while away their time over copi­ous ‘long blacks’ (dou­ble-espres­so in a tulip cup with hot water added). If cam­ou­flage reflects the envi­ron­ment in which it is worn, then dark fab­rics are the cloak of the Welling­ton­ian in her nat­ur­al habi­tat. The dark palette is also cog­nisant with the oft-grey skies above the city, the deep green thick belt of trees that bor­ders the CBD (known as the ‘town belt’), and the chill­ing wind that con­tin­u­al­ly accom­pa­nies the city. This is not a city of hot sun, chilled cock­tails, and bright colours that make tanned skin pop.

The preva­lence of this ‘cam­ou­flage’ dress is pro­pelled by the lack of inter­na­tion­al or big-box fast fash­ion retail­ers in Welling­ton. Many of the shops that dress Welling­ton are small bou­tiques offer­ing small runs of local­ly made or designed clothes, or con­sign­ment shops sell­ing the good, dis­card­ed clothes of Welling­to­ni­ans.  There are no large inter­na­tion­al retail­ers in Welling­ton such as Top­shop, H&M, or Zara. Fur­ther, there are no major glob­al fash­ion labels avail­able. There is no Louis Vuit­ton, no Guc­ci, no Ver­sace, no Chanel or Chris­t­ian Dior, for instance. The lack of inter­na­tion­al chain-stores or glob­al design­er cloth­ing avail­able to pur­chase may con­tribute to the mut­ed colour palette of many city-dwellers who are like­ly to buy New Zealand (if not Welling­ton) designed cloth­ing, which often uti­lizes dark fab­rics and cor­re­sponds with the mild to dark weath­er. It may also go some way to explain why many Welling­to­ni­ans do not appear to wear trend-based dress––there is sim­ply not the same amount avail­able for pur­chase in Welling­ton as in Auck­land and oth­er major cities.

A final strik­ing aspect of Welling­ton style is the lack of high heels worn in the city. This may be because many Welling­to­ni­ans use their feet as a main mode of transport—it is dif­fi­cult to walk far or fast in high heels. Fur­ther, Welling­ton is filled with hills and the angle of high-heeled feet makes it dif­fi­cult to walk up or down­hill. Very few Welling­to­ni­ans change from heels into flats as they walk, bus, or train home, choos­ing instead to wear shoes that they can trav­el and work in com­fort­ably. In addi­tion, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the work­force are uni­ver­si­ty-edu­cat­ed women who are like­ly to have encoun­tered dis­course asso­ci­at­ing heels with patri­ar­chal repres­sion of women. It could be argued that the lack of heel is a sign of Wellington’s lib­er­al and intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture that priv­i­leges women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pub­lic sphere and down­plays the com­mer­cial­ism that the high heel is often asso­ci­at­ed with.

Dressing Wellington

The work of Welling­ton-based fash­ion design­ers Alexan­dra Owen, Deb­o­rah Sweeney, and Lau­rie Foon cor­re­sponds well with the ethos of Welling­ton. These design­ers cre­ate clothes that pro­duce and reflect the city’s dress cul­ture, eschew­ing trends and fast fash­ion, con­cen­trat­ing on qual­i­ty fab­rics and con­struc­tion.

Fig. 1a Alexan­dra Owen, LBD Cap­sule Col­lec­tion

Fig. 1b Alexan­dra Owen, Autumn/Winter 2011

Alexan­dra Owen designs immac­u­late­ly cut and tai­lored, sophis­ti­cat­ed pieces for women (see fig­ures 1a and 1b). Owen’s col­lec­tions are pre­dom­i­nant­ly mono­chro­mat­ic, although mut­ed greys, mus­tards, maroons, and blues make appear­ances amidst the black and white. While born in Auck­land, Owen was raised in Welling­ton and con­tin­ues to live in the city. She com­plet­ed her fash­ion design qual­i­fi­ca­tion at Massey University’s Welling­ton School of Design. Ear­li­er, Owen attend­ed the same high school as the stu­dents fea­tured in this arti­cle. Like the stu­dents, Owen posi­tions her­self out­side of fads. Owen’s web­site states that “[t]he house main­tains a qui­et dis­po­si­tion, reject­ing hype and trends, allow­ing the work to res­onate” (“Bio”). The site also empha­sizes Owen as auteur, assert­ing that her col­lec­tions “soft­ly fuse togeth­er artis­tic vision and wear­a­bil­i­ty” (ibid.). Owen’s pieces are often seen on high-pro­file arts patrons at gallery and the­atre open­ings, and on the lawyers and pol­i­cy writ­ers of the city. Angela Crane, writ­ing for Her Mag­a­zine, which focus­es on women in busi­ness, states, “[1]n an indus­try that thrives on shock, change and dis­pos­abil­i­ty, Owen has made her name doing the oppo­site: tak­ing her time, large­ly ignor­ing trends… She is essen­tial­ly an anti-hip­ster; she’s not inter­est­ed in dis­tressed den­im or sea­son­al prints but in sump­tu­ous fab­rics and heav­en­ly shapes” (“Alexan­dra Owen”). Owen’s and Crane’s dis­cur­sive stress on qual­i­ty design, and ‘time­less’ rather than trend-based style, res­onates with the spir­it of Welling­ton as inde­pen­dent and art ori­ent­ed.

Fig. 2a Deb­o­rah Sweeney, Air NZ Fash­ion Week 2011. Pho­to by Michael Ng

Fig. 2b Deb­o­rah Sweeney, "Lost Love", Autumn/Winter 2013

Like Alexan­dra Owen, Deb­o­rah Sweeney gained her fash­ion diplo­ma from the Welling­ton School of Design. After com­plet­ing her diplo­ma, Sweeney worked for Jill Stu­art New York, Top­shop and H&M. Per­haps because of this expe­ri­ence, Sweeney’s col­lec­tions are the most colour­ful of the labels men­tioned. Sweeney’s designs emu­late vin­tage cloth­ing, cap­i­tal­is­ing on Welling­to­ni­ans’ pen­chant for sec­ond-hand clothes. Her style is more youth­ful than Owen’s, yet Sweeney’s clothes still exude a lev­el of gloomi­ness befit­ting Wellington’s oft-grey skies. Sweeney’s recent col­lec­tion, enti­tled ‘Lost Love’ (A/W 2013, see Fig­ure 2b), is filled with loose-fit­ting gar­ments, in high qual­i­ty silks and cot­tons in black, grey, dusty yel­low and orange. Showy body­con is not in Sweeney’s design vocab­u­lary. Sweeney’s designs have been described as “intel­li­gent, edgy and wear­able” (“Deb­o­rah Sweeney”), and “dark as well as play­ful” (Williams). The design aes­thet­ic of Sweeney adds some pop to Wellington’s dark­ness, but does not send it into a fizz, which ensures that her clothes still rep­re­sent Welling­ton, albeit a city sprin­kled with sug­ar.

Fig. 3a Starfish Autumn/Winter 2013

Fig. 3b Starfish Autumn/Winter 2013

Work­ing hard to ensure her mate­ri­als are envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly and eth­i­cal­ly pro­duced, Starfish design­er Lau­rie Foon encap­su­lates the cul­ture of cri­tique of Welling­ton. Foon’s designs are pro­duced in Welling­ton from fair­ly trad­ed fab­ric, and use nat­ur­al dyes and organ­ic mate­r­i­al. Foon’s shop also stocks fair­ly trad­ed ‘eth­i­cal’ inter­na­tion­al labels. Foon caters to the many Welling­to­ni­ans who are con­cerned with how and where their clothes are pro­duced and the con­di­tions with­in which the clothes are made in. Indeed, Starfish’s tagline is “style with an eth­i­cal heart”. Foon asserts that her company’s mis­sion is “to prove we can look great while hav­ing a min­i­mal impact on our envi­ron­ment” (Blithe). Foon adds that “[f]ast or throw­away fash­ion is pos­si­bly the biggest prob­lem we have and it’s esca­lat­ing” (ibid.). Like Owen and Sweeney, Foon also places empha­sis on her mate­ri­als rather than trends. Foon is termed an “ide­al­ist and a social­ist” by New Zealand fash­ion jour­nal­ist Sta­cy Gregg in her book Undressed (103). Indeed, Foon increased her Welling­ton pro­file fight­ing against the (now com­plet­ed) city ‘bypass’ motor­way, rais­ing funds and aware­ness of the motorway’s impact on the his­tor­i­cal artists’ and work­ers’ quar­ter in the inner city. Foon had peo­ple who lived and worked on the pro­posed motor­way route mod­el her fash­ion range in posters which detailed how the motor­way would affect them and the city (106). Foon has also been involved in oth­er char­i­ta­ble projects such as Project Crim­son, a trust that works to revive the native pohutukawa and rata trees, and has worked to pro­vide sup­port for those affect­ed by the dev­as­tat­ing Christchurch earth­quake of 2011.

Foon’s heart-filled pas­sion for peo­ple and the envi­ron­ment does not result in her clothes being sweet and light. Cater­ing to her Welling­ton clien­tele, Foon’s ini­tial desire to “get Welling­to­ni­ans out of their black clothes” has not been par­tic­u­lar­ly suc­cess­ful (107). Foon admits that Welling­to­ni­ans like “hints of colour but nev­er too much” (107). Indeed, walk­ing into Foon’s shop Starfish recent­ly, the palette remains over­whelm­ing­ly dark, evok­ing Welling­ton taste on the recy­cled tim­ber racks (see fig­ures 3a and 3b).

Zipped Up: Parting Words

The shock of Welling­ton style when I arrived back in the city at the close of the 1990s will leave its impress on my mind for­ev­er. An out­sider want­i­ng to embrace and be embraced by the city, I start­ed my new life by buy­ing new clothes. I hoped that a black wet-look vest and white knee-length skirt with con­verse sneak­ers would not scream my provin­cial ori­gins to my peers. Welling­ton was my Green­wich Vil­lage of the 1910s, draw­ing me in and show­er­ing me in a del­uge of phi­los­o­phy, music, fash­ion, lit­er­a­ture, and food. In many ways, Welling­ton is sim­i­lar to oth­er small cities in the colonised West. Yet, it is my city, the city where my dreams were cement­ed, where dif­fer­ence is val­ued, dark is the palette, and wear­ing the past or fair trade is the way for­ward. It is a city that wears its brain on its (black) sleeves.

Endnotes

Thank you to Assoc. Pro­fes­sor Susan Ingram and Assoc. Pro­fes­sor Markus Reisen­leit­ner for co-ordi­nat­ing and edit­ing this spe­cial edi­tion of Imag­i­na­tions and for invit­ing me to par­tic­i­pate in their pan­el “Imag­in­ing a Sense of Place: The City, the Region, the Bor­der” at Cross­roads 2012. Spe­cial thanks to the stu­dents that par­tic­i­pat­ed in my research, to Susan Ingram for her encour­age­ment and insight, and to my anony­mous review­ers for their valu­able feed­back.

[1] Emerg­ing with a film that, although filmed at the edge of the world, con­tin­ues Hollywood’s cul­tur­al dom­i­nance.

[2] I defined ‘friend­ship group’ as friends that spend time with each oth­er out­side of the spa­tial-tem­po­ral con­fines of the school day, as well as at school.

Works Cited

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Bre­ward, Christo­pher. Fash­ion­ing Lon­don: Cloth­ing and the Mod­ern Metrop­o­lis. Lon­don: Berg, 2004.

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De Pont, Doris. “Why do we wear black?” Black: His­to­ry of Black in Fash­ion, Soci­ety and Cul­ture in New Zealand. Ed. Doris de Pont. Auck­land: Pen­guin, 2012. 6 – 37.

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Image Notes

Fig. 1a Owen, Alexan­dra. Lit­tle Black Dress Cap­sule Col­lec­tion. http://​alexan​draowen​.com/​l​b​d​-​c​a​p​s​u​l​e​-​c​o​l​l​e​c​t​i​on/. Web. Jan­u­ary 8, 2013

Fig. 1b Owen, Alexan­dra. Autumn-Win­ter 2011. http://​alexan​draowen​.com/​a​u​t​u​m​n​-​w​i​n​t​e​r​-​2​0​11/. Web. Jan­u­ary 8, 2013.

Fig. 2a Sweeney, Deb­o­rah. Pho­to: Michael Ng, “Deb­o­rah Sweeney 1” for Air New Zealand Fash­ion Week. www​.nzfash​ion​week​.com. Web. April 2, 2014.

Fig. 2b Sweeney, Deb­o­rah. “Lost Love”, Autumn/Winter 2013. http://​www​.deb​o​rah​sweeney​.com/​F​K​-​l​o​o​k​b​o​o​k​_​7​.​htm. Web, March 5, 2013.

Fig. 3a Foon, Lau­rie. Starfish. Autumn/Winter 2013. http://​www​.starfish​.co​.nz/​a​u​t​u​m​n​-​w​i​n​t​e​r​-​2​0​13/. Web, Feb­ru­ary 10, 2013.

Fig. 3b Foon, Lau­rie. Starfish. Autumn/Winter 2013. http://​www​.starfish​.co​.nz/​a​u​t​u​m​n​-​w​i​n​t​e​r​-​2​0​13/. Web, Feb­ru­ary 10, 2013.


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