“Glamorous New Army Kit” said the newspaper headlines in October 1967, about the mess gowns worn by “these girls” who “enjoy looking truly feminine occasionally after days in uniform”. The thoughts of wearers NZWRACs 2Lt Margaret Parker and Officer-Cadet Jennifer Greacen were not recorded. The occasion was the 25th anniversary dinner of the NZWRAC (New Zealand Women’s Royal Army Corps) and also the glittering launch of the new mess dress for serving officers, held in Wellington.
Officer-Cadet Jenny Greacen sparkled in one of the new gowns… we would like to think that the one in our collection (see image) was Jenny’s, but sadly it has no provenance.
This “glamorous new Army kit” was a champagne-coloured mess gown brought to life by Lurex thread in a brocade pattern overall, with further movement being created through the asymmetrical emerald green silk sash falling from shoulder to back hem…add gold coloured-fringing and this becomes a very special dress under evening lights, itself as vivacious as the conversation that night. Securing the sash is a gold-edged matching green silk epaulette with Royal New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps button, while on the sash is an enamelled RNZAOC insignia, and an anodised aluminium Warrant Officer’s badge of oak leaves and crown.
Dress regulations would have set out the permitted accessories and on this occasion, the dresses were worn with elbow-length light coloured gloves and the pointy shoes with low stiletto heels of the time, then topped off with carefully coiffed hair. No doubt a certain amount of unmentionable armour was also worn beneath – unmentionable yes, but the Army did actually stipulate that “pantyhose” must be worn. Who would check?
It is said that the gowns were designed by the House of Worth, the founder of which was Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, who was also known as the father of haute couture through his business in Paris for clients such as the Empress Eugenie and Lady Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India. Worth is credited with inventing the “princess line” – no precise waistline definition (although a belt could be added); torso contoured below the bust line, the drape flaring gently over the hips down to the hem.
While one couldn’t say that the lavish decoration of the vastly expensive late 19thC gowns (well over 2000 francs for one particular example) has been applied to the NZWRAC mess gowns of the 1960s, the latter still cost each wearer $64 – and this in the days when “the 64,000 dollar question” was the yardstick of a very heady sum.
From contemporary reports, it looks very much as though the WRACS had a “bang-on” evening. We hope so, for in ten years’ time it was integrated into other Army Corps, disappearing, leaving its spangled gown behind.
By Philippa Harrison
Curator of Textiles
– Evening Post 7th October 1967 (press cutting in personal scrapbook/album).
– New Zealand Army Distinguishing Patches 1911-1991, Part One. Thomas, M. and Lord, C. Pub: Malcolm Thomas and Cliff Lord, Wellington (1995).
– The WAAC Story: The story of the New Zealand Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Latham, I. Pub: Wright & Carman Limited, Trentham (1986).
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