“We risked everything for fashion,” says Auckland designer Barbara Herrick of the celebration of femininity seen on the streets of central Auckland after the war years.
During the Second World War, women had entered the workforce in large numbers to help with the labour shortage. It was then that utilitarianism became the order of the day.
But the launch of Christian Dior’s debut collection would reinvigorate the fashion industry.
Launched in 1947, just two years after the end of the war, Carmel Snow, former Editor in Chief for America's Harper's BAZAAR coined Dior's collection 'The New Look'.
It was an exciting expression of the female form, taking women’s curves - and imaginations - to new heights.
Full skirts, curved collars, padded hip-lines and cinched in waists took a global hold of women’s wardrobes, and New Zealand was no exception.
“Women suddenly looked so feminine after the bleak years of the war," recalls Herrick.
“You tried your best even if you might have a little cardigan on, which was the thing about New Zealand girls - always in their little cardigans.”
Herrick wasn’t one to don a cardigan herself. In fact, she loathed them.
Like many women, she was mesmerised by Dior's ‘New Look’ which signalled a social shift for women.
There was no longer any need to conserve fabric and leisure time was being brought back into everyday vocabulary.
But these new garments weren't always practical.
“The only problem was getting on and off trams because the skirts were quite long, and your heel would often catch in one of these layers. Very dangerous!” Herrick recalls.
Herrick, the daughter of a knitwear designer, was also studying fashion at Auckland’s Druleigh College. She was determined to pick up the tools of the trade and had her sights set on starting a high-end fashion label.
After completing her course at Druleigh, she picked up odd jobs and also worked part-time for womenswear designer, Emma Knuckey, which would later set her up to go out on her own.
Herrick's attention to detail and her own signature aesthetic caught the eye of judges at national competitions. She competed in the New Zealand Gown of the Year (1958), and The Golden Shears, (1962).
She also won The Supreme Award at The New Zealand Wool Awards, 58 years ago, which offered its winners national publicity.
At the time, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was in New Zealand. It was the anniversary of her accession to the throne and 123 years since the signing of The Treaty of Waitangi. Her Majesty was in attendance at The New Zealand Wool Awards.
“She presented me with my award,” says Herrick, who was impressed.
“She asked me about my children. She was really lovely and she had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.”
But as Herrick rose from a curtsy, she was distracted by Her Majesty’s outfit - a Norman Hartnell suit made from a fine interlining that helps to give a garment more shape, which many designers had been experimenting with.
Hartnell, a leading British fashion designer, started his career designing gowns for debutantes and was popular with the media. From 1940 he was appointed Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and in the late 50s gained the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II.
“She was busy patting her skirt down and I knew exactly why she was doing it,” says Herrick of Hartnell’s choice of a fabric that was too stiff for the style of skirt.
Herrick went on to have a successful and fulfilling career in the fashion industry, running her exclusive high-end evening wear label, Babs Radon, from a retail store in central Auckland, with stockists around the country and across the ditch.
But although her label was exclusive, customers came from near and far. Babs Radon produced garments that not only attracted fashion insiders, but also everyday women who wanted timeless, beautiful pieces in their wardrobes.
“Mother’s would come in and say, ‘I just want something so special...I’ve had four children and I really want to look nice...
"And they really cared."
Special thanks to Doris De Pont and The NZ Fashion Museum.
Listen to the podcast to find out more about Barbara Herrick's journey to build her business and the big event that took a toll on the New Zealand fashion industry.