Napier's MTG has been forced to delay the launch of an exhibition of late MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan's clothing after the Electoral Commission raised concerns the display could influence voters on election day.

The exhibition features 27 items from the wardrobe of "fashion icon" Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan who was the Labour MP for Southern Maori from 1967 to 1996.

The collection was recently gifted to the Hawke's Bay Museums Trust by the Tirikatene-Sullivan family and has never previously been displayed.

MTG director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins said the gallery had intended to launch the exhibition on election day, September 20. The date was not chosen because of Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan's political connections but because it marked the one-year anniversary of the MTG being opened after an $18 million revamp of the former Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery.


Mr Lloyd Jenkins said he sought advice from the commission and was told if the exhibition ran on election day, any reference to the Labour Party would have to be removed.

Under the Electoral Act, it is an offence - punishable by a fine of up to $20,000 - to influence electors on polling day.

Mr Lloyd Jenkins said as a result of the advice from the commission, the launch date for the exhibition had been changed to the next Saturday, September 27.

Napier Mayor Bill Dalton said he was not aware of the issue around the launch date or any concern the exhibition could be seen to influence voters on election day.

"It certainly seems extreme to me but if it's the law, it's the law and we're not about to start breaking the law."

Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan broke ground in a number of areas during her time as new Zealand's longest-serving female Member of Parliament.

In 1970, she was the first sitting MP to give birth and, in 1972, she became the first Maori woman Cabinet minister.

The Southern Maori electorate she represented included Hawke's Bay and stretched from Gisborne, down the east coast of the North Island and included all of the South Island.

Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan died in 2011.

She was known for her stylish, high-impact wardrobe and Mr Lloyd Jenkins described her as "the only New Zealander who you can immediately identify thorough her clothes".

The exhibition, currently in a storage area of the MTG, yesterday attracted a visit from Auckland-based Labour MP Jacinda Ardern who was in Napier campaigning alongside local candidate Stuart Nash.

"As a woman in Parliament, you're always interested in those who have gone before you and, at that time, there were so few women in Parliament," said Ms Ardern, who is Labour's arts, culture and heritage spokeswoman.

"I imagine the scrutiny on what you wore at that time was as intense, or even more so, than it is now. So I admire that she was able to take a position on how she chose to present herself, and retain that," she said.

"It was a very difficult time for any woman to be in politics so I have an affinity for all women MPs of that era regardless of the side of the house they were on."