John Weekes

John Weekes is an NZME. News Service reporter based in Wellington.

MP leaves legacy of style

As well as being a political pioneer, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan set fashion trends

Museum curator Lizzie Wratislav with May-Ana Tirikatene-Sullivan and Denis Sullivan.
Museum curator Lizzie Wratislav with May-Ana Tirikatene-Sullivan and Denis Sullivan.

She wove a stylish thread through New Zealand history. Now, the sartorial contributions of trail-blazing politician Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan will go on show.

Perhaps the most elegant MP in New Zealand's history — although Tony Ryall might disagree — Tirikatene-Sullivan was the first female Maori cabinet minister.

She was also the first MP to have a baby while holding office. Her daughter, May-Ana, recalled: "Mum carried her babies through the halls of Parliament with pride ... she wore floating kaftans which complemented her belly and, when we were born, she designed clothing with bold patterns so no one could see our sticky little finger marks on it."

Tirikatene-Sullivan died in 2011 and her family has given her garments to Hawke's Bay Museums Trust.

Her gowns incorporated many Maori themes, using bright colours and bold patterns.

Her family said Tirikatene-Sullivan was a trailblazer for New Zealand's working women.

"During the 1960s, most women didn't have careers but Whetu and I both felt we could have professional jobs and a family at the same time," her husband, Denis Sullivan, said.

"She never limited herself to anything and really stood out as a politician." Exhibition spokeswoman Catherine Wedd said Tirikatene-Sullivan set trends and challenged stereotypes.


Unique styles: Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and husband Denis.

She worked with some of her era's most radical Maori artists and with top Pakeha designers.

Gallery director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins said the museum was thrilled.

"Since we began working with Whetu in 2002, it was clear to us she had a unique understanding of fashion and its transformative power," he said.

"These garments are unique."

Tirikatene-Sullivan was Labour MP for the old Southern Maori seat, serving 29 years. She was also Minister of Tourism, Associate Minister of Social Welfare, and Minister for the Environment.

Her father, Sir Eruera Tirikatene, was also an MP. She took over his seat when he died in 1967.


The exhibition opens on September 27 at 1 Tennyson St, Napier, and runs until March.

- Herald on Sunday

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