Heart on a sleeve

There is a saying about ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ and people had been showing their feelings and thoughts by wearing bright colours or items of clothing to show support for our Muslim community. Many women have donned scarves or headdresses like hijab. I’ve also heard of an event called ‘Odd socks for Christchurch’, where people wear odd socks to indicate that we are all unique.

1. man wearing Boer War scarf.png
While I was happy to wear a head scarf I was surprised that some found it intimidating. Wearing clothing is something we often don’t see as provocative but it can have a huge impact on how we are viewed by the outside world. You could argue that apart from showing support for an affected part of our community, it allowed those people who wore a scarf to walk a mile in the shoes of people who wear ‘different’ clothes every day.


What made me think even more about clothing and how it can very political was that the Sunday after the event in Christchurch was the March 17, St Patrick’s Day. That day everyone seems to be Irish and enthusiastically wears green to celebrate their ethnicity and culture. Today people freely don green shirts and badges saying “Kiss me I’m Irish” and think little of it, but that was not always the case. While most Irish people I’ve come across in New Zealand love green as it symbolises their background, in our family we only wear green on St Patrick’s Day; all other days we avoid it like the plague.
Our suspicion about the colour came from my Irish Catholic great grandmother who said it was unlucky and brought disaster. I assumed that this fear was widespread and was surprised to discover it wasn’t. On investigation it made sense. Her family came from Ulster and were proud nationalists, when being such was a criminal offence. Wearing green, even green leaves in a buttonhole, made you likely to be persecuted, arrested, or worse.


2. little highland boy.png
We forget that for quite some time any evidence of nationalist or cultural pride was met with oppression from the English government. Irish wearing green and Scottish highlanders wearing tartan was outlawed and, even when not a crime, often brought abuse or ridicule.
Eventually such signs of pride in one’s culture or religion were permitted to return, and now these same signs are celebrated and honoured. It is hoped that just as the colour green has gained acceptance and ‘normality’, other people who choose to wear their culture will soon be able to do so without being fearful or indeed invoking fear.
Ideas can change. I continue to avoid green to signify the connection I have to that part of my family. I could give in or keep my ideas about the colour to myself, but I don’t. To me, doing so would be turning my back on my culture and especially my Grandmother and I couldn’t do that.

3. first communion.png
My cousins, however, never had the same conversations with our grandmother about her mother, so they don’t have the same beliefs. It’s always awkward when they give me green presents as they believe that if you are Irish you love green, so are doing me a great honour.
Wearing or not wearing particular items of clothing or colours isn’t always a choice. It sometime means much more than what those looking at the wearer can see. Here at Ashburton Museum we celebrate and value the many different cultures we have in our community and believe everyone is unique and special.

4. Salvationist.png

Clothing clues

Working on our current exhibition, Snap! The Glass Plate Negative Project, has revealed many different cultures, beliefs and messages sent through the clothing of Ashburtonians. The images on this page all come from the Halma Collection – a treasure trove of portraits of local people from 1879 to the 1930. Looking at these images, can you spot the message each wearer was conveying through dress?


5. black arm band.png


By Kathleen Stringer.



  1. Like wearing head scarves, some people wear items of clothing to show support. This man wears a scarf supporting the soldiers fighting in the Boer War.
  2. Cultural dress is a tradition worth keeping, although this little Highlander doesn’t look too impressed!
  3. As we know, cultural dress sometimes is connected not with ethnicity but religion. This girl is dressed for her first communion at our local Catholic church.
  4. A lady Salvationist with her family, more than just a uniform it was a way of life.
  5. Something that was once everyday, now rarely seen, a man wearing a black arm band. In times gone by it would have been understood that this man had lost a distant relation or friend. It’s still sometimes seen on the sports field.

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