Otago Polytechnic
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Clothing detective

I am interested in anything to do with dress really, including more recently menswear. Anything can spark my interest to do research… That’s how my paper...

Dr Jane Malthus

Did you know that Hallenstein’s had a waterproofing plant in Dunedin in the 19th century?

Don’t worry, hardly anyone does. But it’s the kind of throw-away comment that can send a thrill down the spine of Dr Jane Malthus. That’s because she has a not-so-secret passion: 19th century clothing and design.

“I am interested in anything to do with dress really, including more recently menswear. Anything can spark my interest to do research… That’s how my paper, ‘Permeable-Impermeable: The Business of Staying Dry in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand’ came about,” explains the Senior Lecturer in Design of her recent research on the Hallenstein factory. “But there’s a bit more detective work yet to be done on that topic before it can be published.”

Detective work it is, or, to use a more apt clothing metaphor, like finding a needle in a haystack. That’s because Victorian-era dressmakers did not document their work. However, with her trained eye, Jane discovers a tell-tale consistency when she looks closely at the techniques being used.

“For example, the piping seen in particular dresses or the way the sleeves were put in was almost always the same. Dressmakers learned those techniques and I was interested in how they learned it. I used letters, diaries, anything that was written by women about clothes or other women, and account books,” she said.

Jane has been working on the fur garment collection at the Otago Museum, is a guest curator for dress exhibits at the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, and, with a team from Wellington, is compiling a book on 19th and 20th century dress.