As the story goes, one day on a South Island beach over a hundred years ago, a little girl saw a moa. Perhaps she saw the last ever Moa in New Zealand, perhaps it was a ghost, or perhaps she was dreaming, but she saw a huge bird in the sand hills and it was blue. Imagine that! Coming across an enormous flightless bird would be pretty surprising, especially one that’s meant to be extinct. These birds were so far extinct that only their bones remained, dug up in the nineteenth century and pieced together by dinosaur enthusiasts and archaeologists who in re-articulating the bones also began to tell stories about moa lives, appearances, habitation, and the drama of their extinction four or five centuries ago.
The moa is unique to New Zealand and therefore an object of national interest and pride. Many museums in New Zealand display full or partial skeletons, which can measure more than two metres tall, depending on the species and the sex. The skeletons are usually accompanied by a model or painting to help us imagine what this prehistoric bird might have looked like in the flesh. Whatever size bird is depicted, the moa is invariably clad in a long shaggy cloak of dull, grey-brown feathers. It’s always presented as the same colour as the kiwi, that other flightless bird of NZ, that other carrier of national burdens, the one that has not yet succumbed to threats of extinction. The kiwi is nocturnal, small, and its mousy colouration blends well with the forest floor and provides perfect camouflage in dim light. Subtle in the vegetation, it both needs and wants to disappear. (I wouldn’t want to be caught out in the open dressed so drably either.)
The moa on the other hand is a much bigger bird, and although its feathers may have been shaggy and long, we have no reason to suppose they were dull. Only a few fragments of moa skin and feathers have ever been found, and they were reddish in colour. Yet nobody rushed out and corrected all those old paintings, and people continue to depict them wearing the same dull kiwi colours. Since moa came in different species and sizes, maybe they came in different colours: why not a blue one? I’m thinking the blue of the takahe or pukeko, those peacocks of Aotearoa. Why were scientists and the rest so quick to dismiss even the possibility of a blue moa? And why did my heart leap at the thought of it? Improbable as it is, a blue moa would offer our collective psyche some real colour, something uniquely NZ to identify with, something confident and decorative, not scuttling about in the half light but resplendently out there – colourful, visible, and unafraid.
Identifying with flightless birds has its own problems, but I think the worst aspect for our society and culture is the utter drabness of the kiwi. Its colourlessness has been extended like an aegis to the moa and to us as inhabitants of this archipelago at the edge of the world. Isn’t it enough that we are miles from anyone’s idea of a cultural centre without effacing ourselves too? Anti-colour is the national colour; colourlessness implies authenticity, character, natural nobility. The ideal colouration in NZ is camouflage, and neutrals take top honours in the Taste Dept.
According to a recent article in The Dominion Post, people dress badly at work these days, and the declining standard is a cause for concern. Looking casual is a sign you’re slacking off. But I think the worst of it, and the cause perhaps, is this renunciation of colour. This is a much deeper problem. Colourlessness is embedded in the NZ psyche as a value, as a virtue, part of the deep reluctance to stand out, to be noticed. Being colourful or visibly distinctive is taken to mean one of two things: you think you’re better than everyone else (a crime in NZ society), or you are on day release from psychiatric care. Either way colour is a social risk.
A couple of exceptions spring to mind. It’s ok to be colourful as a group or team, (only ok because the team rather than the individual stands out), and it’s ok to be colourful when you are hamming it up i.e. dressing up without sincerity. One example illustrates both: painted-up rugby fans at a match. Supporters can’t wear the team uniforms (that would be confusing and wrong) so to “wear the colours” they must paint their faces and put on silly wigs. Although sincere enough in their efforts and about the occasion, it’s strictly carnival. The paint is also a kind of mask which offers a degree of anonymity allowing the individual to hide in the group (again much like other kinds of uniform). So it seems these exceptions operate rather like a safety valve, giving an opportunity to combine the real pleasures of wearing colour and dressing up, but without the risks of being personally seen, without stepping outside the group to stand colourful, visible, and all alone under the huge Southern sky. Like a target.
Is black a colour?
It’s impossible to ignore the dominance of male dress codes here, which have been sliding into colourlessness since the 1990s and dragging women with them. Perhaps always precarious, the palette for female success currently imitates the male and in the professional world, black is an almost perfect choice. The colour of national teams, black also offers itself more generally as a way to dress not colourfully. Black is then valued as the uniform of sophisticated renunciation. This ideal person makes no claim of appearances, using black instead of colour, but that just lets such people get on with presenting “who they are” as a status indicator only, without the burden of exposing real personality.
Black can also be used as a non-colour like mousy brown and blue-grey, which by denying colour also downplays character, exception, and risk. Black is a perfect colour for uniforms; readily available and much easier to keep clean than white, and compliments most complexions. But although black is often worn in a uniform or camouflage way, it can be worn boldly as a colour in itself. Black can be very assertive, imaginative, and stylish. I am reminded of an American woman I once met. She was dressed entirely and immaculately in black, the black intensified by her silver jewellery, red fingernails and red lipstick. Her whole appearance was one of colour, and there was no hint of uniformity, camouflage, or effacement. Far from it – she stood out in any crowd.
People keep saying that everyone in Dunedin wears black, but it’s just not true. This is just the impression that people get because they expect it, they look for it. People everywhere in New Zealand wear black… and mousy brown and grey blue, and grey, and brown, and red, and even orange sometimes. How many people in Dunedin actually wear black as a colour? Probably less than in Auckland or Wellington…Sadly, there are many people throughout New Zealand who wear camouflage, uniforms, and colourlessness. Colourlessness is not really a property of particular colours themselves, which can be muted yet subtly beautiful, retaining the quality of colour presence. Colourlessness is a state of mind, an attitude to dress. It’s about choices, intentions, and your idea of yourself: whether you see yourself as somehow exceptional just by being who you are, a self you are comfortable reflecting in your clothing choice, backed up by social confidence and knowledge – or if you see yourself above all as needing to hide in the crowd.
Hiding and fitting in eventually boils down to being colourless. And let’s not mistake this apparent disinterest in appearances as a virtue: I think this absence of colour indicates a lack of personal involvement and commitment, a lack of care. The body has shown up, but the person is not really there. What kind of cultural ideal is that?