Bold Barbara: How I came to be a style icon at age 82

At 82 Barbara Brinsley owns one of New Zealand's most covetous wardrobes!

By Julie Jacobson
"Boring!" Barbara Brinsley exhales loudly.
No, she sighs with mock exasperation, she has no idea how many pairs of shoes she has, or glasses for that matter!
This from the woman who owns one of the country's most covetous wardrobes and who right now is lying in bed – "recumbent, I haven't got up yet" – in the clothes she wants to be cremated in.
That would be her flamboyant red tartan Royal Stewart dressing gown, which is also her go-to outfit for reading the morning paper. But back to the shoes...
"Obviously I've collected shoes, you have to wear something on your feet, but if you know how many pairs of glasses or how many pairs of shoes you have, then you have too much time on your hands! I find all that tedious!"
Looking chic in a Zambesi dress.
The delightfully acerbic and bespectacled almost 82-year-old has become something of a poster girl for women of a certain age since being scouted, along with two equally well-turned out friends, to model at iD Fashion Week in Dunedin in 2003, subsequently becoming a muse for World.
Her latest undertaking was at the New Zealand Polo Open, where she was asked to curate a retro-chic photo booth in the Veuve Clicquot marquee, with garments from her wardrobe, a decades-in-the-making collection.
The ensemble – "it would fill a town hall" – includes pieces by a who's who of famous and fabulous designers, many of them picked up second hand in London during the burgeoning Swinging '60s fashion scene.
Barbara rattles them off – Dior, Miyake, Chanel, Comme des Garçons, Westwood, McQueen… and then there's her gardening clothes.
With her fabulous feline Pinot Gris.
Yesterday's outfit featured a Marilyn Sainty (Kiwi designer) top, stylish French gardening shoes and lipstick, always.
The garden – a large, rambling tree-studded section – is, like couture, one of Barbara's great joys. It keeps her fit and connected to nature.
"Getting out in the garden is an absolute must for me," she asserts.
"It is so therapeutic; it's almost like an enforced thing. I go out with such a smile on my face and come in really grubby but with a bigger smile."
And then there is art. Barbara is the coordinator for Dunedin Hospital's extensive and valuable art collection, a role she took up following a 40-year career as a nurse, while her big old villa is a veritable gallery, with works by various notable Kiwi artists gracing the walls.
And no, she has no favourites. Designers, artists or otherwise: "A favourite lying down art work? A favourite standing up one? Favourite is not a word I ever use. Whatever I'm wearing on the day is my favourite."
She lets out another one of those sighs before conceding she admires Japanese designers – "I invited Issey Miyake to my 80th but he didn't reply" – Dame Eileen Mayo (an English artist who spent some time in Dunedin), Dame Robin White, and her very good friend the late Ralph Hotere.
"There you go, some favourites," she jokes.
Awarded the Queen's Service Medal in 2019 for her services to art curation, Barbara tells a hilarious anecdote about her two visits to Government House, the first for a reception for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle when a false alarm saw guests shepherded out into the cool evening, the second for her investiture.
It's way too long to go into detail but it relates to hypothermia (potential, not actual) and how Government House now includes survival blankets in its first-aid kits, thanks to Barbara.
Growing up on a farm in Southland and learning to sew as a student nurse, Barbara is disparaging of both fast fashion and "anti-ageing" procedures.
"I was born just before the war, in 1938. You didn't have a lot. You made clothes and they would last for years, and the fabrics were fabulous. They didn't fall apart after a few wears.
"Cosmetic surgery? An absolutely bloody waste of money. They turn out worse than when they started, and all because of a few wrinkles."
The Queen's Service Medal trumps a brooch!
Barbara went grey in her 40s, around the time her beloved husband Michael died.
She's never dyed her hair and doesn't go to the hairdresser. If it needs a trim she takes to it with the sewing scissors.
"Yes, the pinking shears," she grins.
And speaking of things pink, Barbara and daughter Harriet bumped into the What About Us singer at the Dunedin Farmers' Market while on her 2018 NZ tour.
"I wouldn't know Pink if I tripped over her, though my maiden name was Blue, but Harriet spotted her."
So what was Barbara wearing?
"My usual Saturday morning attire – black pants and my Jean-Paul Gaultier jacket."
Of course.

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