Hats Ahoy!

Summer is the perfect time to sport a hat, for both sun-protection and style. We bring you inspiration and photographs from Auckland’s Princes Wharf sixty years ago, when passengers and their entourages showed dash in headgear.

By Frances Walsh | 14 December 2021
Photos by John Rykenberg, courtesy of Auckland Libraries

In the late 1950s and early 1960s farewell rituals were enacted on wharves around the country. Travel by jet planes was still uncommon, and it was ships that routinely transported passengers—sometimes with cargo—to Sydney, Suva, San Francisco, Southampton and ports in between. In Auckland, in atmospheres of high optimism, parties gathered well before cast-off on Princes Wharf alongside SS Arcadia, SS Castel Felice, SS Mariposa, MS Rangitane 11, RMS Rangitata, MV Tofua 11 or MS Wanganella.

People wore their Sunday best, hats included. Import restrictions were still in place, and would be until 1982; knits and dresses were mostly handmade, and hats were purchased from a department store with a dedicated milliner or from one of the several milliners and hatters with premises in the city and the burbs. Post-purchase hats might undergo home-pimping. Women and girls wore cloches, toques, bandeaux, cossacks, pillboxes, sportsters, Garibaldis, and other styles named after things found in the kitchen—the cake tin, the mushroom, and the pancake for three. Men of commerce wore homburgs and fedoras and porkpies; working men cloth caps, and berets if European or revolutionary. School boys were still seen in peaked caps, and sometimes fashion-forward woollen beanies.

When ships left town on weekdays ‘Po Atarau’ or ‘Now is the Hour’ sounded over loud speakers; on weekends a live band played the tune with the martial associations—during the then not so distant two world wars it had serenaded troopships, a line in the English version over-reaching in the circumstances: ‘When you return, you’ll find me waiting here’. As tugs maneuvered the ships from the wharf out into Waitematā harbour, passengers and farewellers lobbed paper streamers at their person of interest, and hung on till they broke. As pantyhose gained in popularity after their 1959 invention they were sometimes substituted for streamers—pairs tied together were more robust and less environmentally friendly, and possibly dangerous in the hands of clingers-on.

The photographer John Rykenberg (1927-2014) was often in the thick of the emotionally charged scenes—while some passengers were holidaying or visiting whānau others were going for good. More prosaically, a few were on non-urgent business, maybe with wives. Arcadia was advertised in the Christchurch’s Press in 1961 like so: ‘Sunshine, sea air, wide horizons, complete relaxation…comfort, good food, good service! These are the reasons why more and more wives want their busy husbands to travel by P&O-Orient Lines to Australia, the Far East, America, Europe. They can slow down this way—at least briefly—before or after exhausting business tours abroad. This pays harried businessmen big dividends in health and increase personal efficiency. They arrive fit, tanned and refreshed—ready for anything.’ 

­On Princes Wharf most of the crowd didn’t have cameras. Rykenberg approached likely suspects, and with one eye looking through the viewfinder and the other on subjects he had cajoled into position, he pressed the shutter on his Leica 35 mm. And handed over his card. The next day proof sheets were available for perusal way up Queen Street, at the Town Hall Pharmacy. The cost of a postcard-sized photo was five shillings—the equivalent of about five pounds of butter, or in 1960 one ‘Pink Cha Cha’ or ‘Apricot Tango’ lipstick.

Rykenberg had a gift for candid photography, for on-the-hoof choreography and composition. He rarely took a dud shot, or more than one shot of the same subject. ‘It wasn’t in his psyche,’ says his former wife and business partner Wendie Wright, who covered the wharf beat if Rykenberg was busy elsewhere. An unfocussed photograph, or one in which someone blinked wouldn’t sell. If somebody was fooling around, pulling a face, poking out a tongue, Rykenberg bided his time Wright recalls. ‘When you’re ready sir,’ he would quietly say.

He liked the wharf hoorays, partly because prospective customers were conveniently gathered in one place for a while—arriving passengers were of no interest notes Wright: ‘They’d just debark and bugger off.’ The size of the crowds was vessel dependent: Wanganella on the Australian run had 408 berths; Rangitane and Castel Felice which went to Britain could accommodate 416 and 1400 respectively; and Tofua 11 on the Pacific Island service only 73. Having had some experience of leaving and of being left, Rykenberg may have been drawn to and moved by the waterfront scenes. In 1952, aged twenty-four, he emigrated to New Zealand from the small Netherlands city of Woerden, where his parents had a drapery shop. By then he had endured the five-year German occupation of his country, telling his New Zealand-born children years later of Jewish schoolmates who went away and never came back.

On the wharf and in ships Rykenberg had his favourite vantage points; he memorialised subjects propped against graffitied walls and corrugated-iron sheds, alongside ships, backgrounded by the Waitematā, ascending the gangway, on decks and in lounges. Non-travellers could go aboard and check out the ships’ interiors, until the ‘All Visitors Ashore’ announcement boomed. In the case of Wanganella and Tofua 11 upholstery featured chintz. And then some. Women in patterned outfits and hats which kicked it up a notch with flora and shaved-rooster feathers were subsumed into settees.

Although Rykenberg didn’t see himself as a social documentarian, his series of 1959-1961 photographs shown here record a last hurrah. Shipping lines faced dwindling passenger numbers as far swifter long-range air travel took over. In 1966 Auckland’s international airport opened and the newly formed Air New Zealand acquired three DC8 jet aircraft for a trans-Pacific service. Wanganella was withdrawn from the trans-Tasman route in 1962; the New Zealand Shipping Company halted its service to and from Britain in 1968, and retired Rangitane; and Tofua 11, on the Pacific Island run since 1951, was the last passenger-cargo liner built for New Zealand’s Union Steam Ship Company.

As for the hats, it was soon goodbye to all that too, or at least to headgear as an essential accessory. In 1960, under the industry category of ‘hats, caps, and millinery’ the New Zealand Official Yearbook recorded 54 establishments, and more than 1000 workers; by 1975 headgear was manufactured in 25 establishments, by 300 workers. One or two-person independent milliners and hatters were not captured in the statistics but they suffered a similar hit. 

The reasons for the decline were various. For men in particular increasing car ownership had an effect, and broke the habit; no need to have a hat to keep the head warm and dry, and roofs were hat-crushing besides. Compelling blokes also began to go hatless—John F. Kennedy, for example. For women the bouffy coiffeurs of the 1950s which reached for the skies were a disincentive, as was the1960 beehive, invented by the Chicago stylist Margaret Vinci Heldt and inspired by a fez, a felt hat commonly worn in the Ottoman Empire, and occasionally on Auckland’s Princes Wharf.

Fashion generally became more informal, and second-wave feminists, youth, and hippies preferred ease of movement. Christian Dior’s 1947 clinched waist, full-skirted ‘New Look’ frocks were eased out by the waistless shift, credited to Coco Chanel in the 1920s. Compelling females also went hatless. In 1965 the model Jean ‘The Shrimp’ Shrimpton went to the Melbourne Cup in a white shift dress. The day after Melbourne’s Sun News-Pictorial reported: ‘There she was, the world's highest paid fashion model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions of fashionable Flemington with a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves and NO stockings!’ The London Evening News retaliated: “...surrounded by sober draped silks and floral nylons, ghastly tulle hats and fur stoles, she was like a petunia in an onion patch.’ In her 1990 autobiography Shrimpton noted that in 1965 she didn’t own one hat.

*The museum is keen to identify people in the photographs shown here, and to reunite them with their whānau. If you have any information please contact frances.walsh@maritimemuseum.co.nz. The museum thanks Wendie Wright and family and Auckland Libraries, which holds all the photographs shown here in its heritage collection. To see more Rykenberg photographs search https://kura.aucklandlibraries.govt.nz/

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