Well not quite yellow polka dot but a bikini made from a shirt worn in one of New Zealand’s most iconic portraits. This treasured textile was shared by Auckland art dealer, Anna Miles, and is one of many images shared on Instagram and Twitter using our hashtags #Tivaevae #Textiletreasures
This bikini top belonged to Betty Curnow, wife of acclaimed New Zealand poet Allen Curnow. The bikini began in Christchurch in 1941 as an identical pair of Britway cacti and sombrero print aprons purchased from Woolworths in Riccarton by Curnow who fashioned them into a shirt to wear around the home. While this repurposing may reflect the efforts of women during the war to ‘make do and mend’ it may have also been a practical choice of materials. Britway cotton was sold in New Zealand as early as 1927 and was advertised as being ‘unfadable’ and ‘hard-working’ making it a popular choice for house frocks and smocks. In addition to its utilitarian qualities, Betty’s choice of Britway aprons may have also been influenced by the popularity of novelty (also known as conversational) prints in the 1940s.
In the same year New Zealand painter Rita Angus came to live with the Curnow family. In December 1941, Angus began a portrait of her hostess Betty and the rest as they say is ‘herstory’. Angus’s Portrait of Betty Curnow, 1942 is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated portraits. Much has been written about the symbolism of the work and the careful collaboration between artist and sitter. In the portrait, Betty is depicted in her Mexicana print house shirt surrounded by motifs and objects that reflect her life as a wife and mother; a portrait of her father, books that link her to the work of her husband and her sons blue pants which rest in her lap. Upon completion in 1942 Angus gifted the portrait to Allen and Betty to thank them for their hospitality.
In 1951 the Curnow’s left Christchurch and moved to Takapuna overlooking Shoal Bay on Auckland’s inner harbour. In 1954 Betty lent the painting on long term loan to the Auckland Art Gallery (it was purchased by the gallery in 1970). Shortly before this or perhaps around the same time Betty cut up the house shirt and upcycled it into a stylish two piece swimsuit that she described as a ‘brassiere and pants’. While her portrait began to solidify its status in the gallery the lively novelty print was ‘kept going’ most likely on a beach on Auckland’s north shore.
In 1995, the novelty print reappeared in a window installation at Auckland Art Gallery by Anna Miles. For this installation the street-facing window was dressed with a curtain screen printed with a design based on Betty’s cacti and sombrero print shirt. After receiving word of the installation Betty arranged to meet Anna and in this meeting gifted her the top half of the two piece swimsuit made from her iconic house shirt.
A special thanks to Anna Miles for her assistance with this blog.
- Anna Miles. ‘The Life of a Novelty Print’ Unpublished essay.
- Ron Brownson. ‘Three Portraits: Rita Angus and her paintings of mothers’ in Rita Angus: Life and Vision. William McAloon and Jill Trevelyan Eds. Te Papa Press. 2008