A uniform approach to Maori social history

By Yvonne Tahana

Sir Jerry Mateparae wearing a Ceremonial Service Dress All Ranks Uniform.
Sir Jerry Mateparae wearing a Ceremonial Service Dress All Ranks Uniform.

Te Papa exhibition tracks defining moments and personalities during 20th and 21st centuries

A Chinese-made suit picked up in Italy by Destiny Church bishop Brian Tamaki and Corporal Willie Apiata's combat gear are the stars of a new exhibition exploring Maori social history through uniforms.

Uniformity: Cracking the Dress Code, which opened at Te Papa in Wellington this week, is curated by Puawai Cairns and Stephanie Gibson.

Ms Cairns said the idea for the exhibition was pretty organic.

"I don't know how many times I've had to wear a uniform for iwi hui or a whanau reunion or kapa haka. There seems to be a natural tendency for our people to gravitate towards creating a group identity through what we wear.

"I'm interested in looking at the uniform as a bit of an interface - tracking our 20th and 21st century history. This is just a snippet."

The curators spent a "mad year" collecting the pieces, which are organised under themes of education, protest, All Blacks, military, religious leaders and the influence of military uniforms on fashion.

Making up the military component are an 1860s Gordon Highlanders uniform, a uniform from former Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae, now the Governor-General, and Corporal Apiata's combat gear from Afghanistan.

The Victoria Cross winner helped dress his mannequin a few weeks ago. He showed Ms Cairns and Ms Gibson how he rolled his sleeves up to show his wrists, leaving a gap between his gloves and shirt, how he secured his knife to his belt, and how he wound his scarf around his head.

"There were peculiar things he did to make it comfortable for him in the field," Ms Cairns said.

"There are little quirks. Even though it seems as if they're supposed to wear it the same way everyone else does, there's also room for individuality in a uniform, which is one of those nice ironic little twists."

Vestments from the Ratana, Catholic and Protestant faiths sit alongside the black suit Bishop Tamaki wore on the steps of Parliament in 2004 for the Enough is Enough protest against civil union legislation.

Many of the 5000 marchers who chanted and wore black evoked for some onlookers memories of Nazi stormtroopers.

"A lot of our whanau in the gay community saw those (Enough is Enough) T-shirts along with the chanting and marching as quite threatening,," Ms Cairns said.

"I don't like the N word - it's too strong - but all those pejorative glimmers of history that it has resonances with but doesn't actually replicate - there's an instinctive, intuitive feel that it kind of looks like that."

The kind offer of the suit captured that time, Ms Cairns said.

"It's very plain to look at. It's a three-quarter-length black suit he said he bought off the rack in Italy.

"It wasn't anything flash, he reckoned, and he's right, it's a Chinese-made suit. I thought it might attract some curiosity about why it's there but he's part of Maori and Polynesian history, contemporary history, and whether you agree or endorse his views or not, it's interesting to document it."

In the exhibition, Bishop Tamaki responds to criticisms about his style: "He said he likes to present well as a man of God," Ms Cairns said.

A T-shirt Tame Iti wore to his High Court trial this year on firearms charges related to police raids in 2007 is also on show. Mr Iti told the curators it kept riding up and he had to wear an undershirt.

There are still notable omissions. Te Papa does not have a Maori Battalion uniform because many soldiers handed theirs back to the army, were buried in them or their whanau kept them.

- NZ Herald

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