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Research throws new light on traditional Maori dress

Reprinted from the University of Canterbury's Chronicle - 30/07/03

When Dr Patricia Wallace wanted to piece together the mysteries of traditional Maori dress she found inspiration in an unconventional form - modern-day plastic Ken dolls. With the help of 'Barbie boyfriends' she was able to reconstruct how early Maori traditionally wore large kaitaka (cloaks) wrapped around their bodies.

Last month Dr Wallace became the first Ngata Centenary Doctoral Scholar to graduate from Canterbury with a PhD in Maori. While the department has previously awarded four doctorates, Dr Wallace is the first Maori person to do her doctoral study solely in the Maori department. Her achievements are even more remarkable for the fact that she only embarked on a university education in her fifties.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Roy Sharp congratulates Dr Patricia Wallace on
	her doctoral success.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Roy Sharp congratulates Dr Patricia Wallace on her doctoral success.
In researching traditional Maori dress for her PhD thesis, Dr Wallace was fascinated by an image of an unfamiliar garment drawn by artist Gilsemans during Abel TasmanÝs voyage in 1642. A similar garment was drawn by Parkinson during Captain CookÝs visit in 1769 and also by Webber during CookÝs last voyage. The illustrations matched descriptions made by both Tasman and Cook in their journals.

Working from a 1771 portrait of Joseph Banks wearing a Maori kaitaka in the style we know today, Dr Wallace was able to work out the approximate size and weight of the cloak.

"I then used Barbie boyfriends as models to work out how the cloaks may have been wrapped around the body. It was a little unconventional but it worked."

In rediscovering forgotten elements of pre 1820 Maori dress, Dr Wallace's thesis has produced new information about the diversity of traditional Maori dress. The last major work in this area was done by Sid Mead thirty years ago. Her research also focused on ephemeral elements, including hairstyle and head adornment and the use of bird and animal skin. Drawing on evidence from oral tradition and early European graphic imagery, her research also pointed to levels of complex technology that are presently lost. With the help of a Macmillan Brown Scholarship, Dr Wallace is currently working with the British Musuem to try and throw light on the origins of a feathered head dress, thought to be made from albatross feathers and harakeke (flax). It was donated to the museum in 1853 as part of the George Grey Collection but its origin is unknown as the Governor collected items from all over the Pacific. Dr Neil Gemmell (School of Biological Sciences) is to carry out DNA tests on the feather tips while Dr Debra Carr from Otago University is to study the plant fibre material to ascertain whether it is harakeke.

"Albatross is no guarantee that the head dress is from New Zealand but harakeke will be," said Dr Wallace.

"It is exciting to be moving into this area of exploring material culture and working as part of a multidisciplinary team. I would like to see Canterbury establish a research name in this area as no one else is doing it."

For further reading in NZine about Maori traditional garments go to articles by Margery Blackman and Elizabeth Arnold.

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