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Image from the records of the Association of the Home Science Alumnae of New Zealand, MS-1516/074, S13-559a, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

Image from the records of the Association of the Home Science Alumnae of New Zealand, MS-1516/074, S13-559a, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

The lovely Alison Finigan, head of alumni relations, once suggested that this blog includes photos from the decades that fashion forgot – so how could I resist putting up this wonderful image! The three women are, from left to right, Neige Todhunter, Winifred Stenhouse and M. Wilkinson. They were all home science students, enjoying a weekend of outdoor recreation in Karitane in 1927. Clothing was one of the subjects in the home science faculty, with a stage one course in garment construction and a stage two course in dress. The dress course, according to the University Calendar, investigated the “historic, artistic, economic and social aspects of dress as applied to the University girl’s wardrobe.” It seems highly likely that these women made, and perhaps also designed, their outfits.

The University of Otago School of Home Science opened in 1911. As the national “special school” it attracted students – all women for its first decades – from throughout New Zealand. Students could complete a three-year diploma or a four-year degree. In addition to clothing, subjects of study in the 1920s included chemistry; applied chemistry (food, household chemistry, laundry); physics; biology; physiology; nutrition and dietetics; bacteriology, sanitary science and hygiene; house planning, home administration and mothercraft; household and social economics; education; and foods (technology, housekeeping and experimental cookery). “Home science” later evolved into “consumer and applied sciences,” incorporating various other applied science subjects. Several of the original constituent specialist subjects of home science have survived into the 21st century: human nutrition and food science are now major departments in their own right within the Sciences Division, while design and clothing and textile sciences are now part of the applied sciences department.

Qualifications from the School of Home Science could take women of the 1920s a long way. Neige Todhunter, whose unusual name (French for snow) derived from her birth during a Christchurch snow storm, was a particularly distinguished graduate. After graduating with Otago’s first master’s degree in home science in 1928 she headed to the USA for further study, completing a PhD at Columbia University in 1933 with a thesis on Vitamin A. She taught in Washington State for a while and then for many years at the University of Alabama, where she established a human nutrition laboratory and became Dean of the School of Home Economics. After ‘retirement’ she had a long association with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she pursued an interest in the history of nutrition. Throughout her career she was involved in various high-level advisory committees on nutrition, as well as professional organisations. Some of her historical publications sound intriguing: I’d like to read her article “Dietetics in the Shakespearean plays”, which reflected her love of literature!

A long obituary of Todhunter, who died in 1991, makes no mention of her dress style. I wonder if the Otago undergraduate course on the “artistic” aspect of dress had any long-lasting impact?