New Zealand is the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote, and is rightly proud of its suffragist heritage. New Zealand women were legally allowed to vote from 19 September 1893, and the first election following that, on 28 November 1893, saw 2 out of 3 adult women in the country vote.
The campaign for the vote, led by women like Kate Sheppard, Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, Harriet Morison (the namesake for my 1893 sewing machine), Helen Nicol, and others, was motivated by the belief that all women should have the right to vote – irrespective of their wealth, education, or race.
New Zealand has been far from perfect in respect to gender and racial equality, but the ideals behind the campaign, which included a petition signed by a quarter of the women in New Zealand, is one of the bright spots in New Zealand history.
Kate Sheppard, as one of the primary leaders of the movement, is often used as a symbol of the suffrage movement. Her portrait is featured on the $10 bill, along with the white camellia, the suffragists symbol. The most prominent suffragist memorial in New Zealand is named after her. The green pedestrian crossing lights in the streets around Parliament feature Sheppard, instead of a generic walker.
In 2019 the New Zealand government bought the Kate Sheppard House, where Kate lived during the most active and influential part of her life, to turn into a museum to tell the story of the suffrage movement in New Zealand.
And the new museum, in turn, asked me if I could make a garment to represent Sheppard and the suffragists!
We initially discussed recreating the Arts & Crafts evening dress/tea gown she wears in the portrait features on the $10 note. The extant garment, somewhat altered from its original state, is in the collection of the Canterbury Museum. However, the dress was too complicated a project for the museums making timeline, and didn’t fit nicely into the space.
Instead, I suggested a shirtwaist.
Why a Shirtwaist?
In addition to fitting the making schedule and the space beautifully, shirtwaists are more representative of the movement as a whole than of just Sheppard. As admirable a figure as Sheppard is (unlike many famous overseas suffragists and suffragettes there are few problematic aspects to her life or beliefs), she’s not monolithic. The progress that was made for New Zealand women was as the result of many workers. Their achievements shouldn’t be overshadowed by one person. So a garment that speaks for the movement as a whole is a fitting tribute.
Many of the suffragists who canvassed for signatures for the famous petition probably wore shirtwaists as they went door to door asking for votes. Photos of women voting in the 1893, 96 and 99 elections in New Zealand show them in shirtwaists.
Shirtwaists should be the iconic symbol of the late 19th and early 20th century women’s rights movement. Unlike colour schemes, sashes, and banners, they were worn by every women exercising their right to a more liberated life. Shirtwaists were the original classless garment. ‘Typewriters’ and factory workers wore them as their daily work uniform, but the wealthiest women of leisure wore them for outdoor pursuits, under suits, and as tasteful informal wear.
Their adoption as an indispensable part of a women’s wardrobe did as much to liberate women’s dress as the acceptance of trousers 40 years later. Often made of cotton, shirtwaists were affordable, and washable. They allowed poorer woman to be neatly and acceptably dressed for a much wider range of activities. Mix and match outfits involving shirtwaists were much less expensive than whole dresses. Three shirtwaists and one nice skirt and you could be clean and presentable every day of the week. Front fastenings meant women could dress themselves, and thus live alone, and be well dressed without a maid.
Looser fit meant that they could be readymade, instead of custom fitted, making them cheaper, and easier to make yourself. Looser fit also allowed more physical activities: depictions of everyday women in athletic pursuits in the 1890s and 1900s often show them in shirtwaists. Shirtwaists levelled social barriers both in terms of class, and in terms of restrictions.
I used a period 1890s drafting manual for my shirtwaist, and based the design details on depictions of women in 1890s photos of the New Zealand National Council of women. I was particularly inspired by the lighter coloured waist worn by the woman fourth from left, top-ish row, next to the woman with the cape:
The women who made up the National Council of Women would have been wearing their daytime best for the Council photos. In consultation with the exhibition designers we chose a less formal fabric, and a less formal shirtwaist. It is meant to look like one which might have been worn while canvassing, or to a simpler working meeting.
We settled on a crisp cotton with a subtle woven-in check. It’s a fabric that will hold its body over time, and has enough texture and visual interest to be dynamic as a display piece. (In the small world of Wellington fabric, my friend Nina has a Regency dress made from the same fabric)
I chose a more formal, structured construction, with a fully fitted inner lining. I felt this was more representative of the transitional shirtwaists of the early 1890s, and would help the shirt to remain its shape on display.
My construction methods were a mix of historical methods, and museum-suitable ones chosen for longevity and durability.
I’m incredibly honoured to have been asked to create a piece representing this part of New Zealand’s history, and to be able to help to tell this story.
An odd person said to me that it was weird they asked me, because I’m not a Kiwi. I may not have the accent, but this is my home. Like Sheppard, I’m an immigrant who moved here as a young adult. And like Sheppard, I’d like to make my country a better, fairer place.