Thirty years ago today, on 11 July 1983, American television host Bob Barker announced to the world that ‘Miss New Zealand, Miss Lorraine Downes, is now Miss Universe 1983’. It was a historic moment for the competition organisers, for New Zealand and for the 19 year old model with the winning smile and mass of blonde hair. It was the first time in the pageant’s history that a Miss New Zealand had taken the top title.
The crowd went wild at the auditorium in St Louis, Missouri, with the young beauty queen literally being mobbed by well wishers as the pageant came to a close (watch the above clip to the very end – its alarming!). The New Zealand press also had a field day. Lorraine Downes became a household name overnight, her smile beaming from the TV screen and the pages of the country’s magazines and newspapers. As a 13 year old I collected many of these articles, pasting them carefully into my scrapbook along with pictures from one of my other favourite competition of the decade, Face of the 80s. Like many mothers and daughters, Mum and I made a night of such viewing. With a cup of tea or milo at hand and a mellowpuff or two we settled in for the two hour extravaganza, playing at arm chair judges.
As such, it was with much delight that I received an email from Lorraine Downes in 2011, offering to gift her iconic Miss Universe ball gown, crown, trophy and sash to Te Papa. They are in fact the only beauty pageant material that we hold.
In association with the 30th anniversary of Lorraine Downes’ win these items will be showcased at Te Papa from the 24 August for six months. The showcase is part of a suite of Level 4 displays that revel in pageantry and spectacle. They include The WOW Factor, an exhibition which delves into the 25 year history of the fantastical World of WearableArt (opens 24 August), and Mollie Rodie Carnival Queen (opens 1 August). The latter features Mollie Rodie’s exquisite Hollywood-inspired costume designs for a 1941 Queen Carnival fundraising pageant, the proceeds from which supported the war effort.
Naturally, the centrepiece of Te Papa’s Miss Universe showcase will be Lorraine Downe’s iconic ball gown in which she was crowned, a gown which remains in near new condition much to our relief. The dress was designed especially for the competition by Dawn McGowan who worked for Television New Zealand’s wardrobe department. As Television New Zealand held the broadcasting rights for the Miss Universe pagent, the company was keen to offer assistance to the young beauty queen. McGowan also designed Lorraine’s national costume – a white gown with a spray of kowhai flowers.
Aware that the beauty queen not only had to look sensational in her ball gown, but also be able to walk with ease, McGowan combined Lorraine’s desire for a figure-hugging gown, with a full skirt that fell from the hips rather than the waist, commenting:
‘I felt that a full skirt would be more in the spirit of St Louis – flamboyant… But most skirts fall from the waist and don’t do much for a girl’s figure, or show off her walk’.
Lorraine Downes felt ‘like a princess’ in the dress, and in the line-up of the five finalists she certainly stood out. McGowan had a good sense of what would work on stage and on screen.
In September Lorraine Downes will present an illustrated talk at Te Papa in association with the Friends of Te Papa. Lorraine will elaborate on her experience of pageant and year long reign as Miss Universe, during which she met numerous world leaders including US President, Ronald Reagan, and reflect on the ‘image-related pressures and issues that go with being female in the modern world’, a topic which she explored with Frances Jones in her book Real: The Truth About Fashion, Beauty and Image.