For a man whose principal interest is sport, Stephen Berg has spent a lot of time worrying about clothes. As the Director of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, Berg is the steward of an astonishing collection of clothing, dating from late Victorian times up until the present: 1250 or so ties last time a count was done; 500-plus rugby jerseys; 300-plus caps catalogued; around 250 blazers; and emblems and insignia almost beyond count.
They are made of cotton, wool, silk, linen and, more lately, synthetic fabrics, and they include three of the museum’s greatest treasures: a handstitched golden fern frond insignia from a jersey worn by Harry Roberts as part of New Zealand’s first internationally touring rugby team in 1884 (on loan from the Roberts family); Jimmy Hunter’s jersey from the 1905 Originals, the first true All Blacks team; and Jock Richardson’s jersey from the 1924 Invincibles, the All Blacks team undefeated in its tour of the UK, Ireland, France and Canada.
None of these heritage items can be handled; they are too precious and fragile.
Just how fragile the museum realised when, in preparation for moving itself and its collection of 40,000 catalogued and 13,000 uncatalogued items to Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History, it enlisted the help of specialist conservators in paper, wood and, of course, textiles.
The verdict on the condition of the 1905 and 1924 jerseys was not good. They were perilously delicate and aging beyond their years. In photographs of the 1905 jersey, the cause of the problems is clearly apparent: a shoulder yoke is quilt-stitched to the top of the garment, making it look almost armour-like.
The body of the 1905 jersey is of a fine, flexible, stretchable wool. The yoke, on the other hand, has no ‘give’, and has become dry and brittle. The two fabrics are antagonists: the wool flexes; the linen breaks. The 1924 jersey, though of coarser wool, has the same problem, although here it is hidden – the yoke is stitched inside the jersey.
In the interest of conservation, these jerseys – made to endure brutal treatment, and worn through tackles and tries, mud and rain – should never again be so much as touched.
The thought was anathema to exhibition planner Bettina Anderson, to whom the soon-to-be-upgraded Rugby Museum, with its mementos behind-glass approach, seemed distinctly dated and two-dimensional. Elsewhere museums were actively putting objects from their collections into the hands of their visitors – and failing access to the physical things themselves, to near facsimiles.
Te Papa, for example, in its natural history discovery centre, lets children step inside a replica dinosaur footprint, inspect an insect under a microscope, or find a fossil.
There is no more physical pursuit than rugby. It is not a ‘look, don’t touch’ affair. So one of the sections of the reborn Rugby Museum is to be called ‘Have A Go’. Here visitors will be able to kick a rugby ball or test their prowess at jumping, sprinting or taking on a scrum machine.
So far, so good, but why not take it further? Imagine the thrill and pride of pulling on one of those legendary All Blacks jerseys – or if not the jersey itself then something as close to it as humanly possible. The idea of creating replicas seems to have emerged organically. Anderson approached Deb Cumming and Robertina Downes of Massey’s Institute of Design for Industry and Environment for help
Neither is a rugby follower. For Downes, whose broad vowels mark her northern English upbringing, rugby is the game played with a “funny-shaped ball”, and Cumming, though a keen sportsperson and someone whose master’s research examined sports dress for women during colonial times, is little better. When the tall, elegantly built Cumming casts around for a personal experience that resembles that of a true believer trying on an All Blacks jersey, she turns to high fashion, imagining “the deep inner happiness of trying on a Prada woollen jumper or a Comme des Garçons coat”.
But for understanding how it is that garments are constructed – the ins-and-outs of yarn sizing, of cut and manufacturing techniques – it would be hard to find anyone more expert or qualified. Before turning to academia, Cumming, who has degrees in design and psychology, worked in commercial fashion design and production for various national apparel companies and ran her own independent fashion design label. Downes has worked in the apparel industry in England, China and New Zealand.
Downes’ next project? Work on one item of rugby uniform that is unlikely to make its way into street fashion any time soon: rugby caps.