Hats on at Olveston

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Anyone looking at photographs of social events of a century ago would have to be impressed by the range of hats worn by those assembled in front of the camera. Few of us would think of the ingenuity required to style their headwear or the labour required in its making. Manufacture seems like a cold word to describe these beautiful and somewhat frivolous items but there was indeed a hat making industry in Dunedin, as well as individual milliners who designed, made and sold bespoke hats.

A reminder of the importance of hats to the society of Olveston’s day stands in Stafford Street where Ross and Gledinning’s Costume and Mantle, Felt and Straw Hat Manufactory employed over eighty staff to make and decorate inexpensive hats for everyday wear. These were made of woven straw imported from China as well as felt and fur. The whole process was carried out on an industrial scale with steam powered presses moulding hats over wooden and metal blocks. The partly finished hat was then dispatched to workers who would fit linings and trim. Buyers would make seasonal trips to London and Paris to return with samples and illustrated magazines were pored over for the latest fashions.

Individual hat makers also thrived in Dunedin where the southern version of ‘polite society’, supported by major New Zealand businesses and the university, was encouraged to look smart. Known as “The Society Milliner”, Queenstown born Lindsay Kennett rose to prominence making the hats for the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth during the 1953/54 Royal Tour. Following the tour he opened his exclusive salon in Parnell, Auckland, which he ran until his retirement in the late 1980s. Lindsay’s return to Dunedin brought a life time’s knowledge and passion for hats which he generously shares with the public.

Olveston invites you to return to this lost period of grace and elegance with ‘Hats On Royal’ – The New Lindsay Kennett Collection, supported by jeweller Chris Idour and evening gowns from the Tania Carlson Fashion Collection. On Thursday 6 November, guests will mingle in the Olveston garden before models parade in hats and gowns in the Grand Hall. The event will be followed by light refreshments and the opportunity to view Lindsay Kennett’s fashion illustrations.

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Olveston’s Fiat

Olveston FiatMention Fiat and most would immediately think of Fiat’s cheerful 500 super-mini and not a gracious touring car from the 1920s.The Theomin’s Fiat 510 Tourer is a 1921 model with a four door open body and substantial canvas folding top and side screens. It was the largest car in the post-First World War Fiat range and was equipped with a six cylinder motor. Fitted with a light weight body as this one is, these powerful cars were capable of traveling sixty miles in the hour. There were few roads in and around Dunedin where this would have been advisable. Even so, the big Fiat would have made easy work of the city’s steep hills.

The choice of a large and fairly expensive product of Italy as a family car showed David Theomin’s interest in the finer things of life. The McIndoes, of printing and plastic surgery fame, enjoyed a Minerva from Belgium. Fine cars were imported from a number of European manufacturers before punishing import duties introduced in the 1930s restricted the range to products from the British Empire.

Who were the Jacobeans?

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Olveston’s lively profile made up of differently shaped gables is a feature of Jacobean revival architecture
Osbert Lancaster gently parodied the Olveston style as 'Pont St Dutch' in Pillar to Post (1938)
Osbert Lancaster gently parodied the Olveston style as ‘Pont St Dutch’ in Pillar to Post (1938)

Architectural taste at the end of the nineteenth century turned towards the first Elizabethan era, some 300 years before. There was a strong element of imperial pride in that particular point in British history. The nation had begun its long period of influence that reached a peak with London as the largest city in the world and the British Empire stretching across the globe to eventually reach New Zealand.

Elizabethan and Tudor revival buildings were a mark of Britain’s cultural and economic status and a reminder of the great period of seaborne exploration and trade. The Jacobean period followed in the early seventeenth-century and is named after King James I of Scotland who also ruled England after the unification of the two kingdoms. Jacobean architecture is mainly characterised by shapely gables borrowed from Italian and Flemish baroque styles. It was regarded as a ‘free’ style and not subject to the strict rules of classical architecture. Architects were free to blend its details with modern elements. Jacobean mixed with Queen Ann and Arts and Crafts was used in fashionable parts of London where the term ‘Pont Street Dutch’ was later coined by author Osbert Lancaster to characterise the tall red brick houses built in Knightsbridge for successful merchants. The Jacobean revival had all of the desirable attributes for the Theomins. It was British but with European overtones, fashionable without being faddish and distinctive but not over stated.

What if?

The Theomins had many complex decisions to make when they decided to build on their Royal Terrace site. They were aware of what local architects could achieve, having visited the homes built for the small Jewish community in Dunedin. They were familiar with Salmond & Vanes who later designed the Princes St building where the Theomin’s musical instrument business was located. Whatever the reason, the opportunity to engage an overseas architect to design the house was made part of an extensive trip abroad in 1902. Along with many successful colonial businessmen, David Theomin spent a great deal of time out of the country. Dorothy was attending Rodean School in England and the family would meet and travel during the holidays. While visiting Canada, David Theomin obtained sketch plans for his house in Dunedin from Toronto architect Charles J. Gibson (1862–1935). Gibson ran a busy practice and built houses for prominent Toronto industrialists but Theomin rejected the plans and went on London where he visited Ernest George who was offered the commission for Olveston. The intriguing question is what might have Olveston become if Gibson’s plans had been used? Would it now be one of New Zealand’s finest historic buildings?

Gibson’s drawings show a fashionable two-storey house with large bays set at right angles to a semi-circular veranda that scaled the full height of the building. These were often finished with a conical roof giving a strong French flavor. A similar house named Venard was built in Mornington in 1898 and designed by J. L. Salmond so Theomin was well acquainted with the style. Red brick and contrasting stone facings would be set off by the complex veranda and a tall Marseilles tile roof.  It would have been a large and impressive house but perhaps not enough to satisfy Theomin’s desire to have something unique in the colony. While some New Zealand houses are described as the designs of English architects, few actually were. Olveston remains unique in New Zealand as the work of a prominent English architect regarded as a style leader in the decades before. This was recognised in the 1960s when the house and its contents were gifted to the city.

Toronto architect Charles Gibson's sketch plan for the Theomin house.

Toronto architect Charles Gibson’s sketch plan for the Theomin house.