While most of us feel as comfortable in our work clothes as we do in what we wear after hours, a small number of Kiwi women eagerly transform into entirely different personas – with outfits to match – as soon as they clock out each day.
It’s a scenario that’s played out in countless bedrooms every morning across the globe – you open the wardrobe, complain you’ve got nothing to wear, end up putting on the same things you usually do and rush out the door.
It’s why most of us spend our waking hours dressed in a ‘uniform’ of tops, skirts, trousers and heels. Out of work, it can be a similar story, with practical-but-dull jeans, sweats and comfy shoes covering our nakedness and protecting us from the elements. It’s no wonder so many of us are bored with our wardrobes.
It doesn’t help that our choices can be restricted by conservative workplace rules (no jeans, except on Casual Fridays, no purple hair or visible tattoos). Or that juggling work, family, hobbies and limited budgets can leave little time to curate a stylish wardrobe.
But what if you could find relief from your nine-to-five wardrobe rut? Wouldn’t you love to have an interest that would let your sartorial creativity off the leash? We spoke to four Kiwi women whose leisure outfits couldn’t be more different from their day-to-day wardrobes.
Shontelle Robb: Apprentice panel-beater
If Shontelle Robb had a dollar for every time someone told her she ‘scrubbed up well’, she’d be able to finish restoring the 1940s Ford hot rod she’s spent the past two years breathing life back into.
By day, Robb is an apprentice panel-beater. But at nights and weekends, the 24-year-old transforms herself into a glamorous vintage pin-up girl.
“I love everything about vintage clothing,” says Christchurch-based Robb. “It’s so stylish and cool. They really knew how to dress back in the day.”
In fact, Robb’s collection of 40s, 50s and 60s dresses, petticoats, high-waisted skirts and Capri pants couldn’t be further from the oil-stained overalls of her day job.
“I love that I can be mucky and greasy by day and then be a glam doll at night! I get a real kick out of how different the two halves of my life are.”
It was Robb’s love of cars – instigated by an uncle when she was nine – which first introduced her to vintage style.
“About eight years ago I started attending a lot of American car shows and noticed that many of the women dressed up to match the hot rods. I grew up as a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl and have never really been into pretty dresses, but getting dolled up looked like a lot of fun so I thought I’d give
it a go.”
Having had her ‘a-ha’ moment, Robb couldn’t be denied or stopped.
“I started scouring second-hand shops and online stores for clothes and experimenting with doing up my hair using large rollers.”
Robb’s wardrobe is now bulging with vintage clothing, shoes and handbags which she wears “whenever possible, but especially to hot rod events that take place most weekends”. And even after so many years of being bitten by the vintage bug, Robb is still blown away by the compliments she receives from both men and women.
“I especially love the reaction from people who only ever see me in my work clothes and don’t recognise me when I’m all dolled up. The look on their faces when they realise it’s me is priceless! But I’m often told how much I suit the style.”
Still, Robb admits it’s nice to be able to kick off the heels after a hot rod show.
“As glamorous as vintage style is, there’s nothing better after a long day of being stabbed in the head by bobby pins or wearing heels to put on a comfy pair of work boots and stick my hair in a pony-tail! It can be hard looking so beautiful!”
Having once flirted with a punk phase (“It lasted six years and involved chains, spikes and other scary things!”) Robb says she can’t see her current obsession with vintage clothing ending any time soon.
“I love the way the clothes make me feel about myself and how I can dress them up or down. It’s so much fun and goes hand-in-hand with my love of hot-rodding. I can only see my passion getting stronger and stronger…”
Wendy Allison: Qualifications developer
If you want to make Wendy Allison’s lip curl, tell her you don’t know what Cosplay is. For the past two years, the Wellington qualifications developer has devoted most of her spare time to the performance art where participants dress as characters from medieval fantasy video games, books and film.
“Cosplay tends to be dismissed by some as trivial and silly but they don’t understand it’s not just about the dressing up, it’s a lifestyle that involves becoming a character,” says the 45-year-old. “For me, Cosplay is an expression of art, both of the original designer and my own ability to bring that art to life. I love taking something that previously only existed as a drawing and making it real. Who wouldn’t want to be a fantasy hero dressed in cool armour?”
For Allison that usually involves wearing heavy metal breastplates, masks, giant leather collars, horns and facial tattoos. It’s in stark contrast to her nine-to five “Wellington uniform” – business casual, usually black, most often a skirt and boots.
“I call my work wardrobe the ‘gimp suit’ because it’s not a style I’d ever choose to express myself with, but it’s inoffensive clothing for dealing with a wide variety of stakeholders in an office setting.
I believe very few of us do work that truly expresses our inner selves; the rest of us simply dress for whatever we’re paid to do during work hours and save our self-expression for our own time.”
For the mother of Thomas, 20, that means spending a significant amount of time hunched over the sewing machine.
“Most of my evenings and weekends are taken up with making costumes for myself and my partner Joel, who Cosplays with me. I’ve also kitted out a number of friends and am thinking about taking on commissions,” says Allison, who is currently grappling with a costume that includes 1.2m long skeletal wings. “It’s proving quite a challenge,” she laughs.
Not that Allison has ever been afraid of a challenge. Born in Yorkshire, she’s done everything from shearing to working with at-risk youth and teaching agricultural skills. She’s currently finishing an Honours degree in Criminology and hopes to start her PhD after that.
Her interest in Cosplay was born while playing a video game. “I noticed how detailed the swords were and wondered if I could make one. I did and someone suggested I try Cosplay, so I made an outfit for an event and quickly realised there was a whole community of people out there who are just as geeky as me! Now I wear my costumes for events like Armageddon as well as for parades and game releases. It’s a lot of fun to get together with like-minded people and run around dressed up as characters from the same game.”
That’s also why it’s so hard to hang up the costumes. “When I take off the outfit, there’s always that moment of losing the magic – I’m no longer a fantasy magical hero, I’m just me with really boring day-to-day clothes. I especially feel it when I take off the facial tattoo; I’ve always wanted one and it frustrates me they aren’t really acceptable in the workplace. I’m considering having a facial tattoo done as a reward when I finish my PhD but I’m not yet sure if I’m prepared to deal with the consequences of other people’s perceptions of that…”
Jane Craven: Senior government adviser
You’ll run out of fingers naming the outfits Jane Craven has made in her lifetime. From historical costumes for several Wellington theatres to her most recent effort – converting a vintage handbag into a corset and spats for her latest steampunk attire.
“Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that incorporates design and technology inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery,” says Craven, 59. “Basically it’s Victorian-inspired fashion with a punk twist,” she adds, showing us around her Wellington home that’s packed with bustles, petticoats and hats. It’s in sharp contrast to the corporate uniform Craven is required to wear each weekday for her role as a senior adviser to a major government department.
“I go from one extreme to the other – conservative during the week and completely over-the-top at weekends,” laughs Craven, whose husband of 36 years, Leslie, is also a steampunk enthusiast.
Her introduction to the genre came in 2009 at a Wellington on a Plate food festival.
“We attended a dress-up event at the Weta Cave and Sir Richard Taylor complimented us on our costumes. From there we were hooked.”
Since then, the couple has travelled to Australia and around New Zealand to attend steampunk festivals and last year started a Wellington chapter. The attraction, says Craven, is how creative she how can be on a budget. “It allows me to channel my theatre costume making skills into experimenting and building costumes over a period of months or even years. I’m obsessed with researching Victorian and Edwardian costuming techniques and applying them to the costumes I make.”
Craven, who has worked as a radiographer and Braille translator, says steampunk also allows her to recycle op-shop clothing, curtains and duvets, as well as old silk ties, buttons and hats.
But the real cherry on the cake is the attention her wardrobe attracts: “I’m 6ft 1 so growing up I could never get clothes to fit me. I felt awkward and unconfident and avoided attracting attention to myself. But steampunk has totally changed my views. I love dressing up in over-the-top outfits and having people see me, smile and ask me about it. I certainly get a different reaction from people when I’m in costume than I do in my everyday clothes!”
In fact, Craven – mum to Michael, 30 – admits she feels “completely underdressed” come Monday morning. “It doesn’t feel right, having to take off the costumes and put on the corporate armour. Steampunk, though, is changing the way I dress at work. I’m getting more adventurous and have even worn matching hats to work I would never have worn before. It has certainly helped me to express my individuality…”
Siouxsie Wiles: Scientist and senior lecturer
Shy and retiring are two adjectives that could never be applied to Dr Siouxsie Wiles.
The scientist and Auckland University senior lecturer may spend her days in a white lab coat and serious-looking glasses, but underneath it she could well be wearing a PVC top, leather corset and platform boots. And you can’t miss the 40-year-old’s shock of bright pink hair.
It’s all part of Wiles’ quest to debunk the myth that only “stuffy old men are scientists!” “I love messing with people’s perceptions of what a scientist should look like and dress like,” she says.
“I’ve previously been asked if I’m a hairdresser or involved in fashion or the media because of how I dress. People tend to have this idea science isn’t creative, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
But challenging perceptions has always been second nature to Wiles. Born in Yorkshire and raised in South Africa, she has long admired those who are true to themselves. “I could never understand kids who had to have the latest shoes and clothing, just like everyone else. I’ve always been about being an individual and being who I am. It’s never bothered me that some of my peers might find me odd or unusual,” says Wiles, mother to eight-year-old Eve.
From an early age, Wiles found herself firmly on the ‘goth’ side of the fashion spectrum, dying her hair purple as a 16-year-old and wearing black floaty dresses made by her mother. It helped that a good wedge of her life has been given over to universities, which are known for their liberal attitudes.
“Medical school in Edinburgh was slightly more conservative and at Oxford a supervisor once told me he would have to warn potential employers about my hair and dress, which enraged me because I couldn’t see what that had to do with my ability to do science!
“But generally, most of my colleagues have accepted me for who I am. I’m sure some of them find me unfathomable, especially the hair, and I imagine there are some who think I can’t possibly be a serious scientist, looking like I do. But I believe it’s more important to bust those myths, particularly if we’re to keep kids interested in science.”
Wiles, who came to New Zealand in 2009 after marrying Kiwi mathematician Dr Steven Galbraith, admits her style has mellowed with age. “It was very gothic, but eventually morphed into cyber-punk style. I still only dress in black, which is kind of a bonus, because it means I don’t have to worry about my outfit clashing with my pink hair!”
Words by: Sharon Stephenson
Photography: Nicola Edmonds, Tessa Burrows and Emily Chalk