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Watching the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards on television brings back memories for many of us around in the 1960s to 1990s. Rebecca Fox takes a look at a new exhibition paying tribute to its role in fashion.
Neither wearable art nor street wear, the fashion featured in the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards always surprised.
The awards, considered the premier fashion design event in the country, ran from 1964 to 1998, although following the abolition of cigarette sponsorship in 1995, the awards became known as the Smokefree Fashion Awards.
From the mid-1980s, the show was televised, becoming a must-watch in many New Zealand households.
Dunedin researcher Dr Natalie Smith has always been interested in fashion's role in society, completing her PhD in art fashion and master's degree on the wearable art awards.
"I was looking for a meatier project in my post-PhD life and I kept coming back to the Benson and Hedges.''
In 2014, she received a Ministry for Culture and Heritage New Zealand History Research Trust Fund Award to assist with her research on how entrants constructed their identity as designers against the backdrop of significant changes in New Zealand's social, cultural and political landscape.
That research is now being used as the basis for an exhibition "When Dreams Turn to Gold'' at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery co-curated by Smith and DPAG curator Lucy Hammonds.
For Smith, the reason the Benson and Hedges Award endured was its open entry format, which meant anyone who thought they could design could enter, not just professional designers.
"There was a woman from Whangarei who was the most prolific designer, yet she had only had some success for the volume of stuff she entered.''
People specifically designed garments for the awards and, as people from around the country could enter, there was often a personal connection.
"There was this possibility that overnight you could become a household name. It could be a career path.''
Dunedin's own Margo Barton, a milliner and now Otago Polytechnic professor of fashion, entered in 1988 with a black swimsuit and hat.
Hammonds said the exhibition was capitalising on that thought with its title `When Dreams Turn to Gold''.
As the awards were broadcast into almost every living room in New Zealand, it was viewed that way at its peak.
"There were only three TV channels in the '80s so it was the highlight for many people. It was very glamorous. It was quite a production, with music and choreography.''
Newspapers featured stories on their local entrants, so it was quite "hyped'', she said. A wool award resulted in a Milton farmer's wife, Elaine Fowler, winning an award in 1979, and Oamaru-educated Maritza Tschepp won the supreme award in 1977 with an organza gown, while fellow Waitaki Girls'-educated Sharon Ng was an Avant-Garde nominee in 1994.
"That was part of its enduring popularity.''
Designers' careers also got a boost and it gave them a global platform: such as Annie Bonza - remember her red and orange dress from 1971? It was worn on the catwalk by Maysie Bestall-Cohen, one of New Zealand's most popular models of the time. There was also Konstantina Moutos, who won the supreme award twice and continued designing after relocating to Athens, and Sarah Chisnall, who had 24 nominations for garments she entered over the years.
"It provided an opportunity to get ahead and for the home sewer it was an acknowledgement of their achievement.''
That diversity also created some controversy over the years, especially when Bestall-Cohen restricted entry to the supreme award to manufacturers-only in 1982 and Thornton Hall won.
It was also a tracking device for the changing nature of fashion design in New Zealand and the aspirations of designers at different moments in time.
The exhibition was not a history of the awards from beginning to end but more of a way to highlight the stories that became important to the awards over time, such as the move from highly embellished European style to the emergence of a more Pacific-New Zealand influenced design flavour such as World's 1994 entry Jesus Christ is a Samoan Woman.
As well as the garments sourced from private collections and museums around the country, including the Dowse, Te Papa and the Central Otago District Council's Eden Hore collection, historical photographs and archival film will be on display.
"The photographs give that sense of time, while the televised broadcasts show some of the garments we can't,'' Hammonds said.
As some garments were customised to be worn after the awards or disappeared over time, there were some that were lost to the world.
"That's the challenge of fashion history; they're not always kept or they're changed dramatically.''
Despite this, there were still some "showstoppers'' in the exhibition, such as the La Bombe dress by Lisa McEwan, that will trigger people's memories.
"The one thing with Benson and Hedges is that people have such a strong recall about very specific garments.''
Smith was particularly thrilled to discover the McEwan dress from 1988 had survived in the designer's own collection.
"It was amazing ... and sculptural. Very much of its time. Designers had an interest in social issues which fed into the narrative, such as nuclear testing and the Rainbow Warrior bombing.
"It tapped into that wave of feeling signifying that time.''
The pair had designed the exhibition, sponsored by Quartz Reef, to be simple yet convey a feeling of the original production.
"It's been interesting and challenging to do as we did not want to re-create a Benson and Hedges set.''
They hope the exhibition will revive memories of the show.
"People still talk fondly of the show. There are a lot of stories about watching it and what their mother thought of a dress.''
‘‘When Dreams Turn to Gold: The Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards’’, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, March 18-June 15.