New Zealand’s Maori Party Uses Fashion as a Political Weapon

By John Mercury October 13, 2023

The outfit is distinctly Victorian. A high, vintage lace collar with ruffles cascades over the lapel of a black tailcoat. But it is not meant to be a throwback.

For Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the co-leader of Te Pati Maori, a New Zealand political party, it is a reclamation of the era when her ancestors first engaged with the British, who began colonizing New Zealand in the early 1800s. She has worn this attire, plus a top hat, in Parliament.

“When you want to get a message out fast, fashion is a way to do it,” she said.

The message is largely the same since the party had a surprise return to Parliament three years ago: keeping issues of its minority community in the public eye and building political support. Its members are feeling particular urgency now because the future of several pro-Maori policies is on the line. In Saturday’s election, Te Pati Maori is expected to win as many as five of the 120 seats in Parliament. It currently controls two.

The party “has been great at getting a disproportionate amount of media attention,” said Lara Greaves, who teaches political science at the Victoria University of Wellington. “They play that as a positive for their voters that they’re really out there representing Maori politics.”

Te Pati Maori’s policy proposals have included decoupling New Zealand from the British monarchy and enacting a wealth tax. It has faced criticism from the right that it exhibits too much political showmanship with few concrete results.

A recent poll showed a slip in support for Te Pati Maori, which, like other minor parties in New Zealand, often struggles for significance. It is unlikely to be a major political force or kingmaker, because New Zealand’s next government is all but certain to be a conservative coalition led by the National Party, which has promised to defund pro-Maori programs such as a health agency for the community and has ignited racially charged debates.

Below Ms. Ngarewa-Packer’s mouth is a traditional tattoo called a moko kauae. Around her neck is a large hei-tiki, carved out of jade, for protection.

“We’re up against some yucky nastiness,” Ms. Ngarewa-Packer, who gave her age as “50s,” said of the race-baiting that has become more overt with this election.

About 17 percent of New Zealand’s population identifies as Maori, and a significant portion of the community has long supported the incumbent center-left Labour Party. Te Pati Maori was formed in 2004 when two Maori politicians left Labour after a dispute.

In 2021, the Te Pati Maori co-leader Rawiri Waititi made headlines when he forced a rule change that no longer required male politicians to wear neckties, which he called a “colonial noose.” His choice of parliamentary footwear — Air Jordan sneakers — was widely criticized.

But Mr. Waititi has remained defiant, walking the runaway at New Zealand Fashion Week for the Maori designer Kiri Nathan in his signature sneakers and a carved jade necktie.

“We must continue to decolonize our spaces down to our shoelaces,” Mr. Waititi, 43, wrote on TikTok after the show.

Far from being trivial, these acts of defiance are probably speaking to Te Pati Maori voters, according to Ms. Greaves.

“Maori is an ethnicity, but it is also a culture, and people who feel connected to their cultural side are more likely to support Te Pati Maori,” she said, adding that many Maori voters still have an affinity for the Labour Party.

The Te Pati Maori co-leaders heard about the tie rule during an induction into Parliament in 2020. Ms. Ngarewa-Packer wore a tie during the ensuing controversy because female politicians were not subject to the rule.

Ms. Ngarewa-Packer’s style has been called “post-colonial.” The high collars, lace and ruffles of the Victorian era coincided with a period of trauma for the Maori that included land confiscation and wars with British colonizers.

“It is something that is incredibly Western and incredibly English, and, at the same time, it is incredibly powerful and incredibly Maori,” Bobby Luke, a designer and university lecturer, said of how Maori artists and designers have reclaimed the look.

Takutai Tarsh Kemp, a Te Pati Maori candidate, is a counterbalance to Ms. Ngarewa-Packer’s near-gothic style. She favors bold patterns, bright colors and streetwear like sneakers and tracksuits, which reflect her involvement in New Zealand’s hip-hop dance community.

“It is all about being proud to be Maori,” Ms. Kemp, 49, said at a recent campaign event in Auckland with the party’s reggae theme song blasting in the background. She wore a dress from Jeanine Clarkin, another Maori fashion designer. The dress combined a printed cotton sheet with a vintage denim vest.

It is also an example of sustainability common to many Maori designers. Ms. Nathan, the fashion designer who featured Mr. Waititi, uses organic materials like native flax.

“The most sustainable processes and practices that you could possibly integrate into your fashion label or way of life is to look at Indigenous practices,” Ms. Nathan said.

They also play a part in Te Pati Maori’s election campaign: Its climate policy states that Indigenous knowledge is needed to stabilize global temperatures. It has also proposed increasing the use of traditional Maori seeds for farming.

Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, a 21-year-old Te Pati Maori candidate, called Mr. Waititi’s and Ms. Ngarewa-Packer’s fashion moments necessary “housekeeping” to introduce a new era to Te Pati Maori.

“I don’t need to wear a tie, because I have a taonga,” said Ms. Maipi-Clarke, using the Maori word for “treasure” to describe the hei-tiki that Mr. Waititi wears instead of a tie.

The next term is expected to be a combative one for Maori issues. The National Party has promised to ax the Maori Health Authority, and a likely coalition partner, the libertarian Act Party, wants to raise the retirement age to 67 from 65. That policy would disproportionately impact Maori, whose life expectancy is several years behind non-Maori New Zealanders.

The leader of Act, David Seymour, recently said that he fantasized about sending Guy Fawkes to eliminate New Zealand’s Ministry of Pacific Peoples. Fawkes was hanged in 1606 for attempting to blow up the British House of Lords. Mr. Seymour later said that he was joking.

In response, Ms. Maipi-Clarke launched a T-shirt brand called Original Navigator to remind “younger Pacific descendants that we navigated the greatest ocean with our hands, the stars and the moon,” she said.

A small trial run of T-shirts sold out in two weeks.

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