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Iconic Wardrobe of NZ’s Longest Serving Female MP Exhibited

Media Release

27th July 2014

Iconic Wardrobe of NZ’s Longest Serving Female MP Exhibited for First Time

The iconic wardrobe of New Zealand’s longest serving female MP and internationally recognised fashionista, Hon.Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan ONZ will be exhibited for the first time at MTG Hawke’s Bay. (Museum Theatre Gallery)

Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan passed away in 2011 and her family have gifted a large range of garments to Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust and are delighted her political fashion and style will be relived.

Daughter May-Ana Tirikatene-Sullivan says her mother was a fashion icon and a media darling as she paved the way for working women in New Zealand, proving there was no glass ceiling for those who wanted to have children and a career.

“Fashion, family and politics were very important to my mother. We are pleased we can showcase her unique story and the work she did to put New Zealand on the map, by making a statement through fashion.”

From the moment Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan swept into Parliament in 1967, it was clear that New Zealand had found a fashion icon.

She turned heads as she floated through the halls of parliament in elegant gowns, bright colours and bold patterns, which oozed style and broke barriers for women and Māori.

MTG Hawke’s Bay director, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins says the museum is thrilled to receive the clothing and be able to showcase the iconic garments in a unique exhibition.

“After more than a decade of working with Whetu and her whānau, the decision has been made to entrust the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust with this important collection of garments.

“Since we began working with Whetu in 2002, it was clear to us that she had a unique understanding of fashion and it’s transformative power. Her style has left an indelible mark on New Zealand culture. It is entirely appropriate for the collection to come to Hawke’s Bay, a region so close to the heart of Whetu herself.”

“These garments are unique to New Zealand and the world, and the exhibition planned for September will be the most significant of its kind. We feel privileged to shine the spotlight on this remarkable icon of New Zealand fashion for the first time," said Mr Lloyd Jenkins.

Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan was the Labour MP for Southern Māori for 29 years. She was the first female Maori Cabinet Minister and was also the first pregnant Minister.

“Mum carried her babies through the halls of Parliament with pride and designed clothes to ensure her pregnant belly wasn’t obvious because in those days most pregnant women didn’t have careers. She wore floating kaftans which complimented her belly and when we were born she designed clothing with bold patterns so no one could see our sticky little finger marks on her clothing,” said Ms Tirikatene-Sullivan.

“Most kids are embarrassed about what their parents wear but as I grew up I would try and emulate it. Mum always made sure we were exquisitely dressed, nothing ever clashed or was mismatched.”

For Whetu, fashion embodied her aspirations for Māoridom. Her style was bold, modern and bicultural – she made an impact for a new generation when a sea of suits was the norm at the time.

“It would have been easier for mum to wear a tweed suit, but she gained international respect for putting Māoridom on the world stage through fashion.”

A keen designer, Whetu worked with some of the most radical Māori artists of the time, as well as leading Pākehā designers, Whetu used fashion to present her expression of contemporary Aotearoa.

Whetu held the positions of Minister of Tourism, Associate Minister of Social Welfare, and Minister for the Environment.

Husband Denis Sullivan describes his wife as a ‘pathfinder’ who believed in ‘no limits’.

“During the 1960s most women didn’t have careers but Whetu and I both felt we could have professional jobs and a family at the same time.

“Her individuality and sense of style was portrayed through fashion. She made statements all her life. She never limited herself to anything and really stood out as a politician. I don’t think any other MP has matched her sense of fashion and style. We want people to see her fashion designs and the impact she made. If we kept her unique wardrobe it would be a waste. So it’s wonderful the garments can be displayed in a museum exhibition.”

Whetu’s love of fashion reached back to her Hawke’s Bay whānau. She was close to her Mōhaka-born grandmother, who passed her passion for clothing and design to Whetu. Sketching fashion designs soon became a favourite pastime, which also became a big influence on how she projected her vision as a Māori leader.

“Mum inherited my great grandmother’s ability to be able to envisage a design, cut it out of newspaper and then make it.”

This exhibition links strongly to Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pāhauwera and to Hawke’s Bay, through Whetu’s own whānau as well as her tireless political work for the people of the region. The exhibition also showcases the artwork of Ngāti Kahungunu artist Sandy Adsett, who provided striking prints for many of the garments included in this exhibition.

The exhibition will open to the public on 27th September 2014, running until March 2015.


For more information please contact Catherine Wedd 021 288 6770

Background Facts

• - Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan (9 January 1932 – 20 July 2011) held Southern Māori for Labour from 1967 to 1996, following in the footsteps of her father, Sir Eruera Tirikatene.

• - She was well known as she swept stylishly through Parliament while breaking barriers for women and Māori.

• - She held the positions of Minister of Tourism, Associate Minister of Social Welfare, and Minister for the Environment.

• - In 1970 she became the first sitting MP to give birth

• - In 1972 she became the first Māori woman Cabinet Minister

• - Raised at Ratana Pā and named by the Ratana movement's leader, she served her political apprenticeship as secretary to Sir Eruera and through involvement in Ngai Tahu business.

• - Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan is a member of the Order of NZ.

• - The Southern Maori electorate that Whetu represented included not only the South Island but nearly the bottom third of the North Island and including the Hawkes Bay region up to the Gisborne boundary area.

• - Whetu worked in the Hawke’s Bay region during her nearly 30 years of service.

• - She is survived by husband Denis, son Tiri, daughter May-Ana and two mokopuna.

• - She commissioned a large number of garments incorporating Māori motifs by contemporary Māori artists, such as Sandy Adsett, Para Matchitt, Cliff Whiting, and Frank Davis. She wore these at her many public engagements, and they were generally regarded as her signature style. For many New Zealanders this was the first time they had seen such traditional elements in a new context.

• - Exhibition will focus on period from 1967-75.

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