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How to Gatsby


New Zealand government tourist brochure, 1944. The girl is Marcia Hart, winner of the 1937 Mardi Gras bathing belle competition at the Soundshell, wearing her winning costume.

It’s that time of year again – after planning our Napier Art Deco wardrobes and devising our own unofficial schedule with friends to go alongside the official program, it’s time to finish packing the bags and prepare for the moment the wheels on the plane go up.

I was asked to give the “How to Gatsby” talk again, this time partnering with the fabulous Glory Days Magazine girls. I know a few purists raise an eyebrow at the title, given that the Art Deco weekend covers the 1930s as well (indeed, the earthquake that initiated the re-build of the city occurred in 1931), and Fitzgerald’s masterwork is a quintessentially American book, sometimes hailed as the great American novel. I do understand these reservations – there is, of course, a great deal more to the Art Deco era than Gatsby, particularly in Napier. I think the program committee was bang on with the title, however – because this is all about accessibility. When we unpack the name Gatsby we not only have the specific associations with the 1920s and big parties, there’s also the theatricality of Gatsby himself and the world he created. Yes, there is illusion here – but that is part of the appeal. Nick Carraway sees through the artificiality, and admires Gatsby anyway. This not-too-serious event, rather than a reenactment of the Deco period, is a theatrical celebration of it. That’s the wonderful thing about this mass participation event…it’s not just for a niche crowd of devotees, although they are more than accommodated (if you love vintage fashion or excellent repros, you’ll find others to share your love of the subject in Napier). It’s a weekend when thousands visit, and when you might find yourself dancing in the streets with hundreds of others. It’s about being as involved as little – or as much – as you like. You could attend several paid events a day, or attend none and enjoy the free entertainment. You could dress head to toe in era-accurate attire down to your shoe buttons, or don a dodgy chook feather boa over your t-shirt and shorts as the equivalent or your party hat and hits the streets to enjoy yourself.

One of the most magic moments I’ve experienced in Napier was a late night by the Soundshell, as the music and dancing was winding down. A group of Indian visitors assembled, and launched into a Bollywood dance routine. Not to be outdone, some of the local boys took to the stage and danced a Haka. Not long afterwards, a dance instructor gathered up a bunch of people, locals and tourists, and gave them a spontaneous lesson in how to do the basic Charleston step.

It’s an atmosphere like no other – this will be our tenth visit to summer Deco. We originally came for the architecture and the chance to enjoy 1920s-30s themed events, but we kept coming back for the enduring friendships that extend around the year.

But back to my talk. It’s a broad topic, though, particularly for someone who delights in minutiae. I’ve been asked to give lectures on subjects as broad as maritime history, Edwardian fashion, and the fate of the Franklin Expedition (due, so my friends tell me, to the fact I could probably talk underwater if it’s a subject I’ve studied). I’ve worked to keep this talk on point and accessible as an intro to putting together a Deco-style wardrobe, and will firmly clamp down on any inclination to digress into early 1920s bodice fastenings or satin stitches I have known and loved. If you do drop in, please come up and say hallo! I’m also delighted to be co-hosting this event with the Glory Days girls, who know how to put on a very stylish show. You can book tickets online here for Friday 19 at 10.30 am in the marquee.

And if you want to drill down beneath the theatricality and find out what people were really wearing in New Zealand in the Deco era (including how they different from European and American styles) and learn more about fashion history in this fascinating period, my costumier friend Natalie is giving a talk that I highly recommend:

Natalie Robb, Napier Costumier, asks the question – what were we really wearing in
Hawke’s Bay in the 1930s?
FRI 19 FEB 4.00PM
Napier Library, Station Street, Napier.
Hope to see some of you there! NapierDay2SandraIng



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