Why you should go to Napier's Art Deco Festival

by Joanna Wane / 26 September, 2018
Photography by Billie Taylor.

Joanna Wane joined the crowds putting on the ritz for the 30th annual Art Deco Festival in Napier.

Dogs wore cheese-cutter hats and brocade waistcoats. In an old-fashioned pram, a puppy in pearls and lace peeked out from under the hood.

Men with ruddy faces dressed in braces and bow ties and boaters; gangsters bared their ankles in short trousers, Al Capone-style, as they toted wooden machine guns on the street.

A flotilla of lace parasols floated along Napier’s Marine Parade – parting to make way for a mobility scooter that barrelled through the crowd, the rider’s pink gloves and shoes matching the flowers gamely pinned to her hat.

Matilda and her soon-to-no-longer-be-a-bachelor Art were there, both of them effortlessly charming and in a different outfit each day. On Saturday afternoon, she wore flat shoes, a cloche hat and spectacles to judge the Costumes, Coiffure and Bathing Belles competitions. MC John Cocking (aka “Bertie”) described a pair of beach PJs modelled by a visitor from the Gold Coast as “absolutely spiffing”.

“Give us a little spin at the end, darling,” he encouraged a shy young wren in an original World War I nurse’s uniform. “That’s it, beautifully done. The next little lady, please...”

Children swirled black moustaches above their top lips, and teenage girls showed off their legs in skimpy flapper dresses that revealed the occasional incongruous tattoo. An older woman dressed in head-to-toe apricot had plasters on the back of her heels, where the stiff leather of her lace-up brogues had rubbed.

Inside one of the banks, a teller worked at her computer in a headband and sparkly silver sequins. Thank god for air-conditioning. Out on the street, elegant women of a certain vintage sweated quietly under luxurious fur stoles as the midday temperature hit 30°C. How their stockings must have prickled in the heat.

Glen Pickering must have been sweating, too, before the opening pōwhiri at the Soundshell, on February 14 – Valentine’s Day. He ran the World Buskers Festival in Christchurch before taking over as director of Napier’s Art Deco Festival, making his debut in 2017. It rained, for the first time in 17 years. Then, at his first Winter Deco Weekend a few months later, flooding closed the train lines – cutting off the Vintage Railcar – and heavy snow trapped cars on the Napier-Taupō road.

This year, the sun glowed in a flawless, indigo-blue sky. Pickering shone, too, in a striped blazer with matching bow tie and boater. On Sunday, he helped judge the Deco Dog Parade at the Soundshell. Chihuahuas in tiaras nipped at the heels of Russian wolfhounds, and a bowler-hatted Charlie Chaplin and his lookalike schnauzer won a prize. By the time it was all over, the grass was littered with boa feathers.

An hour later, he was handing out prizes at the Soapbox Derby. Spectators lined the street as racecar drivers as young as four careered down Tennyson St towards a bank of sandbags at the finishing line, chased by runners to make sure no one veered too far off track; a replica 1930s Bugatti still had visible damage from a crash the year before. “Start your engines,” boomed the announcer, as the carts lined up for each heat. “And push…!”

Left: An art-deco window display captures the glamorous style of the era. Right: The Masonic Hotel, which rose from the rubble of the 1931 earthquake.

Pickering is in his element at an event like this, which is all about putting on a fabulous show and, for a while, slipping into someone else’s skin. In his early days as an actor, he was a body double for twins Jethro and Van on the TV3 series Outrageous Fortune (whether he was in any of the show’s notorious sex scenes, one didn’t like to ask, but apparently the writers liked to make sure there was at least one within the first few minutes of every episode).

“When you put on a costume, your behaviour changes, and you really do become another person,” he said, over coffee at the Masonic Hotel, one of the art-deco masterpieces that rose from the rubble after the 1931 earthquake destroyed so much of the city centre. All the Masonic’s staff were dressed up for the weekend, from busboys to bartenders, transforming the place into a heaving Prohibition-era speakeasy. “You can imagine the 1920s and 1930s looking just like this,” said Pickering, looking out over the terrace. “It’s like walking onto a film set.”

It was the 30th year the festival had been held, and a staggering 45,000 people poured into Napier over the weekend – a quarter of them from out of town.

The Great Gatsby Party at the Mission Estate Winery sold out, with tickets at $220 a pop, but most of the events were free. On Saturday, the pavements were packed with spectators for the Vintage Car Parade, led through the city centre by the Royal New Zealand Navy Band.

Entry was capped at 300 cars, but all eyes were on the celebrity top 30, which had an extraordinary combined value of more than $30 million. There was a 1934 Cadillac V6 Town Cabriolet, first owned by Marlene Dietrich; a 1935 Duesenberg J Phaeton once owned by Carole Lombard; a 1935 Packard S8 Coupe that used to belong to Amelia Earhart; and New Zealand’s oldest car, an 1895 Benz. A ferret (long deceased) sprawled over the back of a gold and black 1913 Model T Ford. When one car stalled, volunteers rushed forward to give it a push. How the crowd cheered as the engine fired back into life.

A retired Southland farmer was behind the wheel of “Number 10”: a 1924 Vauxhall 30-98. The only car of its type bought new in New Zealand, its griffin hood mascot and aluminium alloy finish had been polished to a shine. He’d splashed out on the Vauxhall after selling his land. “I never had the time or the money when I was farming,” he said. “But it’s a bugger of a thing to clean.”

The Vintage Car Parade.

Art and Matilda were in the parade, and so was Kerre McIvor, who’d been spotted trying on hats in a vintage store the previous afternoon. Stuart Nash, Napier’s local MP and the Minister of Police, was dressed up as an old-fashioned Bobby, with a white helmet and wooden truncheon.

But no one was more thrilled to be among the back-seat VIPs than Val, from Auckland, who’d won a trip for two to the Art Deco Festival through a competition in Next magazine, including tickets to the Masquerade Ball. The first person she called on hearing the news was her best friend, who lives down the line.

The pair met 40 years ago via their husbands; both marriages went by the wayside long ago but it was the friendship, they reckoned, that was really worth keeping, anyway. “I got straight on the phone and said, ‘What do you think, girlfriend?’”

All weekend, the crowds oohed and aahed as vintage Tiger Moths barrel-rolled across the sky and Charleston dancers whirled through the streets. Only the Depression Dinner, where ticketholders dressed down and descended on Clive Square for a soup kitchen-style meal, was considered by some to be in poor taste, given the number of homeless people who habitually shelter there.

Best of all was simply people-watching. At the Great Gatsby picnic – one of the festival’s grand finales – dozens of gazebos lined the lawns along Marine Parade, from the Tom Parker Fountain to the Soundshell, creating vignettes of a time gone by. Picnic tables groaned with cut sandwiches and tiered cupcake stands; vintage teddy bears leaned on crackling gramophones. One group from Whangamatā had been coming for the past 14 years and dined off heirloom china.

Heat waves shimmered on the shingle beach. The sea looked inviting and deceptively serene, but no one was cooling off in the water; a notorious undertow stretches along this part of the coast. Instead, ladies delicately hiked up their dresses and paddled in the fountain, or frolicked in red-and-white striped bathing bonnets and bloomers. Several people were ushered into the shade of waiting ambulances, suffering from heatstroke – but not the brave Navy boys, who paraded in formal dress for the sombre hanging of the Veronica Bell and the evocative “Last Post” bugle call.

The HMS Veronica was at port in Napier when the 1931 earthquake struck, and its crew was first to raise the alarm. One sailor later wrote in his journal of great explosions of earth and stone that shut out the sun “and, finally, the sky” as the inner-harbour sea floor was forced upwards by two metres, leaving the ship deep in mud, surrounded by wriggling fish.

In just two-and-a-half minutes, almost the entire town centre was destroyed. Gas and water mains ruptured; fuelled by an onshore breeze, the fires burned for two days. In Napier alone, 161 people were killed, one percent of its population at the time. “Napier as a town,” wrote The Dominion, “has been wiped off the map.” Insurance companies refused to pay out, calling the earthquake “an act of God”, forcing people to take out second mortgages to rebuild their lives. Moneylenders thrived, as moneylenders often do.

It was the middle of the Depression, and thousands poured into the ruins looking for work. The rise of the seabed gifted Napier – previously hemmed in by water – an extra 3500ha of valuable real estate. Traditional Māori fishing grounds became farmland; marshes became the foundation for new suburbs.

Within two years, 160 buildings went up, designed in keeping with the art-deco architectural style of the time. “It was the death of Napier,” said Mayor Bill Dalton, in his official speech at the Veronica Bell ceremony. “And it was the birth of the Napier we now know.”

This year, to mark the festival turning 30, the theme was music. Next year, the focus will be on fashion. And once again, Glen Pickering will be praying it doesn’t rain. But amid the fun and frivolity, the weekend is more than one big dance party. “It’s a celebration of heritage and of story,” he says. “At its heart, we’re commemorating something really important.”       

The Art Deco Festival is held annually every February. The next event is on 13th - 17th February 2019 and the programme has just been released. Tickets now available for members of the Art Deco Trust, and go on sale to the public from October 3.

Young entrants in the Deco Dog Parade.

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.

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