In a town known for dressing up in weird and wonderful costumes, one woman has stood out for the magnificence of her outfits. Oamaru Mail reporter Sally Brooker was treated to a glimpse into Maureen Bradshaw’s wardrobes.
Maureen Bradshaw is a textile magician.
The retired professional tailor and dressmaker converts curtains, bedspreads, fabrics, trims, and accessories she finds in op-shops into outfits that look a million dollars.
Mrs Bradshaw and her husband Noel are often seen during the Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations and Steampunk NZ Festival in an array of exquisite costumes she has created.
Their Oamaru home has wardrobes filled with immaculately cared for clothing and there are two sheds out the back devoted to Mrs Bradshaw’s sewing.
One is kitted out with sewing machines and drawers teeming with trims ready to be repurposed.
The other has racks of sumptuous gowns, many in Victorian theme. Shelves contain hatboxes, the contents of which have been crafted to match the frocks, and chokers and jabots that conceal and decorate the neck area and allow jackets to be worn without blouses underneath.
There are also several pairs of dainty lace boots adorned with satin bows.
Mrs Bradshaw has either made everything from scratch or altered it substantially from how she found it. In the latter category are a wedding dress that she dyed pastel blue and added sleeve and bodice decorations to, and a floaty evening gown that was several sizes too small until she found a matching fabric from which to fashion new insets at the sides and under the sleeves. Mrs Bradshaw gathered the sides into a flattering drape and achieved exactly the right shade in the trims by painting them with nail polish.
Most of the hats were op shop finds; blemishes like water marks have been covered with netting and fabric flowers.
If a hat is too big, she puts shoulder pads inside it. If it has a shallow crown, she attaches an Alice band inside that fits it to her head.
The boots are op-shop cast-offs to which Mrs Bradshaw has carefully glued heavy lace.
She said she preferred altering garments to making new ones, because it was more of a challenge.
Beadwork was another favourite pastime, especially in winter.
“It’s very relaxing watching telly doing beadwork.”
The Bradshaws’ home features cushions, lampshades, and Indian ornaments that Mrs Bradshaw has beaded. She always uses beeswax on the thread to prevent tangling and abrasion from the glass beads she likes best.
Her skills were built up throughout her working life, and have been augmented along the way by her characteristic creative flair.
Mrs Bradshaw is now 78. She left Dunedin’s Queen’s High School at age 15 in 1956 and took up an apprenticeship in bespoke tailoring at a small business in the city. The clientele were professional men such as judges and lawyers.
“Everything was done by hand,” she said.
She began by making shoulder pads from black felt, then learned the art of hand-made buttonholes using linen thread and wax.
Mrs Bradshaw remembered being allowed to finish the trousers for a well-known judge. She was “so pleased” with her work, which was checked by her boss realised she had left a small pin in the seat of the trousers.
About three years later he returned to have more clothing made, but did not say anything about the errant pin.
“That was the only sort-of mistake I ever made,” Mrs Bradshaw said.
When fabric importing regulations caused difficulties for her boss, he found her a new job somewhere she could complete her four-year apprenticeship: Frank Helean’s kiltmaking business in Dunedin’s Stock Exchange building.
Each pleat in each kilt was made by hand. Creating the fringing on the edges and on accessories such as bagpipe bags was very time-consuming, Mrs Bradshaw said.
She left the business to get married and start a family.
Then she rented a shop in the Dunedin suburb of Caversham and established her own alterations and bridal shop, House of Kavina. She found the name in connection with her Norwegian elkhound; Kavina was a powerful Norwegian queen.
Clothing alterations, including work for two Dunedin menswear shops as well as the public, were her “bread and butter through winter”.
“Then I built up the bridal side.”
Mrs Bradshaw was able to buy her own shop “right in the middle of Caversham”.
When the Mongrel Mob moved in next door, she turned her hand to making all its patches.
“They had to behave in the shop.
“They were very particular about their patching.”
The Mob was also a handy neighbour for security and other purposes. Mrs Bradshaw said there were sometimes fidgety children in the shop while adults had fittings. They would touch the bridal gowns and generally make a nuisance of themselves, so she would ask walk.
She took them to the gate of the Mongrel Mob property and told them to look through a chink and tell her what they could see in the yard bones they used to feed their dogs.
Mrs Bradshaw told the children they were the bones of those who misbehaved in the bridal shop.
The children would return to the shop and sit very still, even asking for permission to get up from their chairs.
Most asked their parents if they could stay home when the next fitting was scheduled.
“I could write a book on the bridal side [of the business],” she said.
One bride who chose a very elaborate dress covered in crystals and pearls said she had worn jandals all her life and could not wear traditional shoes at her wedding. So Mrs Bradshaw painted some jandals white and spangled them with pearls and diamantes.
She had a selection of bridal gowns for hire.
One, a Victorian-style lace dress, was so popular it was hired out 54 times in eight to 10 years. It ended up with lace elbow patches made to look like roses and petals, Mrs Bradshaw said.
Another rented dress suffered an accident when the mother of the bride tried to iron out a tiny crease on the front with a motel iron.
She melted a hole through both fabric and lining, which the bride had to cover with her bouquet.
Mrs Bradshaw received the ravaged dress the next Wednesday and had to make a new front panel before the next hirer was due to pick it up two days later.
Children who had oohed and aahed over the shop’s bridal tiaras were the chief suspects when the shop was burgled and the headdresses stolen soon afterwards. They had also robbed the till of the 2c coins, its only contents.
“They must have put them in a pocket with a hole in it. A trail of coins led police straight to their address,” Mrs Bradshaw said.
She sold the shop 15 years ago, after 27 years in business, and retired with her husband to Oamaru.