The national costume

kate

Oh, look. It’s Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, at the state reception held for her and her husband in Wellington. She’s wearing an elegant black gown with a silver fern motif on the shoulder, designed by UK designer Jenny Packham.

It’s been praised in the media for its referencing of New Zealand’s national emblem. But wait – it’s a strangely familiar design. Let me think…

Oh, that’s right. It’s what almost every Miss New Zealand wore in the national costume section of Miss World and Miss Universe in the 1980s.

As I discovered recently when I trawled through two decades of Miss World and Miss Universe contests, there’s a certain awkwardness and uncertainty when it comes to New Zealand’s national costume. It seems no one’s really sure what it should be, but the one thing that keeps recurring is the black frock with a silver fern.

So ok. The Duchess of Cambridge has officially made it a thing, so let’s declare it once and for all: New Zealand’s national costume is a black gown with a silver fern motif. For both men and women.

It might not be to everyone’s liking, but let’s just be thankful that the duchess didn’t take inspiration from Miss New Zealand 1985:

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National costume

Part of the annual Miss World and Miss Universe beauty pageants is the parade of nations section – the first introduction to all the contestants. The format changes a lot, but one of the most consistent factors is the displays of national costume.

If you’re Miss Austria, you wear a dirndl, if you’re Miss Japan, you wear a kimono. But if you’re Miss New Zealand, you have a long hard think about national identify and the impact of colonialism.

Over the years, the not-quite-knowing-what-to-do curse has plagued Miss New Zealand. In recent years costumes have become much more extravagant, more peacocky, while Miss New Zealand has struggled with comparatively looking like a wallflower in a black frock.

I figured the way Miss New Zealand has been dressed can tell us a lot about New Zealand’s national identity, so I went through the pageants over the years and picked out the very best attempts at a national costume.

Part I: The ’80s

1980 – Miss World New Zealand Vicky Lee Hemi

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The furthest back I could find was 1980, kicking off with Miss New Zealand in a very New Zealand costume. I soon discovered that if a Miss New Zealand has some Maori ancestry, chances are she’s going to given a costume inspired by traditional Maori dress. But the best thing about this – Miss New Zealand is holding a kotiate, a lethal weapon. So just look out, Miss Bermuda.

1980 – Miss Universe New Zealand Delyse Nottle

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I imagine the conversation went like this: “Well, she’s Pakeha, so we can’t put her in traditional Maori dress, but what about traditional European dress? But what would that be? Oh, what about going back to first contact? Captain Cook? Captain Cook! Yeah! Sexy Captain Cook!” Ahoy?

1981 – Miss World New Zealand Raewyn Marcroft

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This one follows the “sexy Captain Cook” line, but rather than having any of the Sergeant Pepper-style embellishments of 1980, this one literally just looks liked they went to a costume shop and rented an 18th century Royal Navy outfit. After the pageant she will be required to scrub the decks.

1983 – Miss World New Zealand Maria Sando

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Of course the All Blacks had make an appearance somewhere. But it says something that the best feature of this outfit was deemed to be the pervy high-cut shorts, necessitating a view of Miss New Zealand’s bum. Evidently the footy socks and bedazzled rugger jersey really didn’t do it alone.

1983 – Miss Universe New Zealand Lorraine Downes

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The jewel of the 1980s was Miss New Zealand Lorraine Downes winning the competition, the first and only New Zealander to be crowned Miss Universe. Most notably she was not wearing a crazy national costume, just an elegant evening gown. And that was all it took for this smily teen with giant hair to win.

1984 – Miss World New Zealand Barbara McDowell

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Yes, that’s a pari and piupiu worn with high heels. Miss New Zealand looks like a glamorous primary school teacher who was happy to wear the costume for the school’s kapa haka festival but would not forgo her heels. But yet Miss New Zealand was the one who stood out. Oh sure, Miss Mexico had a sparkly sombrero and Miss Nigeria had yards and yards of fabric, but did either of them have poi?

1985 – Miss World New Zealand Sheri LeFleming Burrow

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I love this one so much. Miss New Zealand is basically wearing a giant sheepskin, with fluffy deely bobbers on her head, like a last-minute attempt at a Lord of the Rings animal pelt costume. Actually, I think this is how people on the other side of the world imagine New Zealanders actually dress.

1986 – Miss World New Zealand Linda McClannis

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This costume is to fashion what “Sailing Away” is to pop music. The 1986 Miss World pageant was held in November, amid New Zealand’s early successes in the 1986 Louis Vuitton Cup. So hey, guess what – New Zealand is a brand new world yachting superpower so let’s dress up Miss New Zealand like a sailor! Yo ho ho, etc!

1986 – Miss Universe New Zealand Chris Atkinson

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If there’s a defacto national costume, it’s a black dress embellished with silver ferns. This one, with shoulder pads of the era, treads a fine line between “elegant evening wear” and “logo of a sports funding agency”. Also note the earrings that look like the skeletal remains of a seahorse.

1988 – Miss Universe New Zealand Lana Coc-Kroft

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It’s another variant on the All Blacks uniform, but this time it looks more like a grey romper suit. Lana is also holding a silver rugby ball (which literally looks like a rugby ball that’s been spray-painted silver). I feel this silver rugby ball should be used as part of the induction ceremony for new All Blacks.

Part II: The ’90s and beyond

1993 – Miss Universe New Zealand Karly Kinnaird

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It was bound to happen sooner or later. If you use enough of New Zealand’s national colour, eventually the wearer turns into a goth. While I like to see my people represented on the world stage, I feel that the goth look would have been more successful about 15 years later, at the peak of Twilight mania.

1994 – Miss World New Zealand Shelley Edwards

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Doesn’t Miss New Zealand look so joyfully happy, like the Teletubbies sun? Yeah, her dress looks like a giant scenic New Zealand souvenir tea towel, but she looks utterly delighted to be wearing it, as she should be, for it is amazing. Also, let’s redesign the flag to have the beaming face of Miss New Zealand 1994 on it.

1994 – Miss Universe New Zealand Nicola Brighty

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Well, I like to call this one “Rihanna at the beach”. Yes, New Zealand is an outdoor, beachy kind of place, but togs and a towel as national costume? It’s not even a glamorous bikini – just a utilitarian two-piece. Just to be clear – this was the national costume section, not the swimsuit section.

1994 – Miss Universe USA

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For some contrast, here’s the most amazing costume I came across while trawling though 20 years of parades of nations. It’s Miss USA in a NASA astronaut suit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the moon landing. At first it seems a bit weird (especially with the sash), but the NASA suit is, after all, an iconic piece of 20th century Americana. And also it’s quite good to celebrate women in space as well as the men.

2006 – Miss Universe New Zealand Elizabeth Gray

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This dress was designed by Lindah Lepou, but the overall styling makes Miss New Zealand look like Betty Draper (so we shall call her Betty Gray-per) if she was stranded on a desert island and had fashioned a stylish frock using available materials, determined to still be elegant. Don Draper is played by a smily face drawn on a martini glass.

2008 – Miss Universe New Zealand Samantha Powell

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Fierce. The costume incorporates elements of Maori and Pacific design, but the overall styling takes it to a whole ‘nother level with the Sharpie ta moko. The gestures are Scary Spice crossed with the Flight of the Conchords “Fashion is Danger” song. Miss New Zealand don’t need no kotiate; she will murder you with her stare.

2009 – Miss Universe New Zealand Katie Taylor

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It’s not too hard to figure out that this gown was based on a tui, but there’s more to it than that. It’s actually an entry from the 2005 World of Wearable Art, by Tracey Smith and titled “In-Tui-Tion” (WoW loves a pun). This screen grab doesn’t do it justice, but Lucire has a good photo. It’s a fab dress, but somehow it makes Miss New Zealand look like a Dalek when she walks.

2012 – Miss Universe New Zealand Talia Bennett

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It’s hard to see it in these photos, but this costume has giant wobbling metal fern wings. And as the show commentators tell us, the fern is New Zealand’s “national plant”. While it’s crazy and extravagant, it’s not crazy and extravagant enough. It looks more like a reality TV star’s wedding dress than something worthy of Miss Universe.

The 2013 Miss New Zealand just went for a black evening gown, but next year I want to see the crazy turned up to 11. New Zealand turned wearable art into a legit artform, so there’s actually no excuse for Miss New Zealand to show up in just a black frock. Warm up the hot glue guns.

Updates

2014 – Miss Universe New Zealand Rachel Millns

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I was hoping for some madness with 2014, but there was Miss New Zealand dressed as Elsa from Frozen.

2015 – Miss Universe New Zealand Samantha McClung

Samantha McClung, Miss New Zealand 2015New Zealand really has no idea how to do this. The national costumes of 2015 are bolder and bigger and brighter than ever – think mardi gras – but Miss New Zealand comes along wearing a black dress. With ferns on it.

And it’s not like, oh, she’s standing out by being different. Because she’s not standing out. She’s practically blending into the grey background – the neutral toned background designed to let the colourful costumes stand out.

Maybe this is actually all New Zealand can manage. Maybe we as a national are so racked with self-consciousness that we absolutely could not deal with Miss New Zealand wearing anything extravagant. Maybe we are quite happy for Miss New Zealand to be almost invisible on stage.