Collection Stories

Art Deco Elegance

This art deco-era tea dress was made by a Mrs Welsh of Gonville in 1939, for Gertrude Croom.

This is a stylish tea dress made of satin rayon. The soft green of the fabric and the floral pattern in red, pink, yellow and orange, bring to mind the bold colour combinations of Art Deco styling of the 1920s and 1930s. The era is further represented by the stylised flower forms, by the use of synthetic material and by the two small clips decorated with coloured glass, attached to both sides of the front neckline.

This garment is a tea dress. Originally worn in the late 19th century for informal entertaining at home and typically made in light fabrics, tea dresses were intended to be worn without a corset while delivering a sense of style. In the early 20th century they were worn in the evening at dinner. By the 1930s, tea dresses were worn to go out in, for special occasions. Dresses for day wear usually had high necks, while evening tea gowns had lower necks and longer mid-length skirts.

The dress was made by a Mrs Welsh of Gonville in 1939 for Gertrude Croom, who was 20 years old at the time. The skirt was cut on the bias so that it fell elegantly, emphasising the curves of the body. The slightly asymmetrical hemline added to the graceful movement of the garment.

Gertrude was born in 1919 in Hihitahi, a few kilometres south of Waiouru. Her father, Arthur Croom, was a surfaceman in the Railways and her mother, Eliza Croom, was listed in electoral rolls as a wife. The family relocated to Whanganui where Arthur worked in the cool store at Castlecliff Wharf.

The maker of the tea dress, Mrs Welsh has proven difficult to track down. We only know her name because that information came from Gertrude when she donated the dress to the Museum collection in 1989. From the 1900s to around the 1940s there was a plethora of women dressmakers operating in Whanganui, some with several employees or apprentices. Others took on sewing orders in their homes and remain more or less unknown.

Gertrude married Brian Potts in 1946 and the couple had four children. Their third child Geoff Potts, a well-known local historian, remembers that his mother always dressed nicely and presented herself well. While Gertrude did the clothing repairs that were normal for the time, she did not make her own clothes.

Brian became the Wanganui Railway Station Master. The Potts were parishioners of St Peters Church in Gonville, and Gertrude also took Bible Class. Gertrude and Brian were active in Forest and Bird and Bushy Park. They were enthusiastic gardeners, passing their passion down to their son Geoff Potts who runs a nursery to this day.

By Libby Sharpe, Pou Tiaki/Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum

Image: Gertrude Croom’s tea dress, made in 1939
Photographed by Kathy Greensides
WRM 1989.59.2 

View the full-length image.

Karen Hughes

1 November 2022

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