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Fashion a lifelong passion


Media Release 25 September 2014

Fashion a lifelong passion

Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan had a passion for fashion, family and politics.

From Saturday, the public will be able to see why New Zealand’s longest serving female MP was regarded as a fashion icon as well as a political trailblazer when the exhibition Travel in Style opens at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Whetu passed away in 2011 and, in a coup for the museum, her family gifted many of her iconic garments to Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust. The exhibition is the first time her wardrobe has been on display.

Members of Whetu’s whanau will join curator Lizzie Wratislav at 11am on Saturday for a guided floor talk which will be open to the public.

“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,” daughter May-Ana Tirikatene Sullivan, said.

Whetu was close to her Mōhaka-born grandmother, who passed her passion for clothing and design down to her. Sketching fashion designs soon became a favourite pastime, and it also influenced how she projected herself as a Māori leader.

Whetu was a sensation when she swept into Parliament in 1967, choosing elegant gowns, bright colours and interesting styles over a conservative work wardrobe. She worked with some of the most radical Māori artists of the time, as well as leading Pākehā designers to help create her unique look.

Travel in Style 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 region’s people. The exhibition also showcases the artwork of Ngāti Kahungunu artist Sandy Adsett, now head of Toimairangi, Te Wananga o Aotearoa’s Hastings based contemporary Maori art school, who provided striking prints for many of the garments included in this exhibition. He has designed a new print for a silk scarf that forms part of the merchandise for the exhibition and will be available from the MTG shop after the show opens.

MTG Hawke’s Bay director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins says the museum is thrilled to be able to showcase Whetu’s iconic garments.

“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.”

The exhibition runs until 15 March 2015.


Editors note: Please refer to ‘MTG Hawke’s Bay’ and not ‘Hawke’s Bay Museum’.

Key Facts

Opening day guided floor talk - 11am Saturday, with curator Lizzie Wratislav and members of the Tirikatene-Sullivan whanau. Attendance included with MTG entry charge, or free with a Travel in Style programme ticket.

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 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 was 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 Hawke’s Bay region up to the Gisborne boundary.

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 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.

The exhibition will focus on the period from 1967-75.

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