Swallowing a sneaking suspicion she's a culture cougar, Catherine Smith is wowed by the wearable arts.

I like to think I am not easily insulted, but when my Wellington sister pointed out the flurry of letters in her local paper about middle-aged women descending on the city for World of Wearable Arts (Wow) shows (or, as a certain Bill Voss of Vogeltown called it, "the Wellington Sevens for cougars") I bristled.

Then, when the nice steward on Air New Zealand beamed, "Going to Wearable Arts, are we?", as he served the coffee, I realised I was entering a new culture.

Sure enough, everywhere I looked around there were hens - albeit artily dressed, with smart hair-cuts - clearly out to indulge their music, arts, shopping and clothes fantasies in one wonderful Wellington weekend.

Even if Bill and his mates shake in dread at the feminine hordes descending, Wellington finds us eminently wooable. Of the 47,000 people who saw the shows, 30,000 were from out of town, filling the hotels and restaurants and pumping more than $15 million into the town. The capital has just signed a nine-year contract with Wow Awards Show to keep us coming back.


I'd always read about Wow, now in its 25th year, loved the brief period when it was televised, and made a point of visiting their museum to poke at the winning costumes whenever I'd visited Nelson. But nothing had prepared me for the stunning night of theatre that is Wow in real life.

The buzz starts before the show, with a display of previous winning costumes. Nice, but the fun really starts when troubadours rove the lobby, dressed in fantastical costume, to create tiny bits of street theatre while the audience is milling to get in. The TSB arena holds 3800 people, some lucky enough to join tables of 10 around the catwalk. Tickets sell out fast for the 12 shows, and grumpy Bill will be pleased to hear that the audience has plenty of groovy young hipsters and excited small sorts to balance out visiting crones.

In contrast to the Auckland theatre crowd, these folks have really made a sartorial effort. Crowd-watching is entertainment in itself: next time I'll give myself longer to hover.

The superlatives I had read about the show were not enough: the staging of each section is an entirely new piece of theatre for the stage-in-the-round. The excitement builds from the more prosaic South Pacific and children's sections to the super-creative.

Last year's Illumination theme had works which glowed under ultra-violet light. The show-stopper creative excellence theme this year was Visual Symphony. Each piece had to create a sound, composed into a musical score by Gareth Farr, modelled by musicians and accompanied by the Vector Wellington Orchestra.

Forget tail-coats and black dresses on a platform, these dudes were suspended in bathtubs, prancing in fishnet tights and dancing with high energy. Forget also the awkward models at most trash to fashion shows: these were immaculate dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance, tightly choreographed and stunningly lit.

If you want a tiny, teeny taste of Wow, Auckland Museum (and then Hamilton) are showing about 30 of the garments this month. But truly, find your inner cougar, get some tickets (they are selling now) and get yourself to Wellington at the end of September. Just try not to frighten Bill of Vogeltown.



September 25 - October 6 at TSB Bank Arena, Queens Wharf, Wellington, 8pm, and matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

Tickets from $99 to table seating (with dinner) $380; some restricted-view seats, $50 and $65. Buy from worldofwearablearts.com or ph 0800 496 974.