The Soap Box Derby, upper Tennyson Street. Photo: Daisy Coles

In Napier’s CBD on the morning of Thursday 15 February, having just ordered my regular flat white from Ella at Georgia on Tennyson, I put the standard question to her: ‘Will you be dressing up for Art Deco?’ (At that exact moment, within a ten-kilometre radius of us, approximately fifty-seven people were putting this precise question to their baristas, their neighbours, their customers, their acquaintances met by chance on the footpaths of Napier Hill and the well-trodden dog-walking trails of Ahuriri.) 

I’d been loosely planning to dress up with my kids and go into town for the Art Deco Festival – it’s been three years, after all, since the city has been able to hold a full celebration, COVID and extreme weather having played merry havoc with it recently.

Ella’s reply was unequivocal. ‘Nah,’ she told me, ‘I don’t really get into it.’ When I asked her why, she delivered a shot to my heart: Art Deco, she said succinctly, was ‘cosplay for boomers’. In the moment, it confirmed my long-held suspicion that she was way cooler than I am. 

But I shouldn’t have had to hear this damning statement to know that it encapsulated a truth universally acknowledged among my generation. We are the children of those who heard the earthquake stories first hand. We studied Art Deco in standard 2. We were hauled along to the Stables Museum and Waxworks in the May holidays (where there was an earthquake stimulator that predated Te Papa’s earthquake house). The Yellow Pages, when we were kids, were filled with businesses whose name started with ‘Deco’, and whose logos featured that characteristic thick-spined lettering.

Nowadays, we’re used to stepping around tourists with cameras on Emerson Street, and we grumble when we’re obliged to find appropriate clothing for our own children to wear to school commemorations in early February. We reached saturation point long ago – what is the point in participating in an entire festival of this stuff? We all became art deco grinches.

It’s true, too, that the glorification of Art Deco feels like the glorification of a certain moment from our colonialised past. Napier was rebuilt as efficiently and elegantly as it was because of the efforts of the Building Regulations Committee: 100% white and 100% male. In this sense, a celebration of the rebuild feels like one that’s not truly everybody’s; not truly for the people. When you compare it to our newest national holiday, Matariki, which honours season and place, and sanctifies Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous culture, such a festival does indeed seem, literally, like a bit of a whitewash. 

Despite all this, I travelled into town with my three children and my mother on the Sunday morning, the final day of the Festival. We were headed for the Deco Dog Parade and the Soap Box Derby. I was looking – hoping – for evidence of something truly worth celebrating. Did all this really just boil down to a Best-dressed Boomer competition?

As we stepped onto Hastings Street, the answer seemed Yes. The boomers were out in force, and it was clear that they were the ones who’d invested the most in authentic, splashy deco costumes. Hats from the milliner, long strings of pearls, fur stoles, tailored blazers, shoes that shone, perfectly correct waistlines. Where I saw younger people making an effort, it was often a not-quite-right waistline that spoiled the look. I suspect that a Napier opshop sold the last authentic drop-waisted dress in about 1997, despite what the opshops would earnestly still have you believe. Authentic Art Deco dresses cost a lot. Looking at the catalogue of official events, boomers seemed explicitly catered to, too: luxury picnics, three-course menus, vintage car parades. 

And yet. As I craned over fur stoles and cloche hats to try to catch a glimpse of a pug in a tutu, promenading in front of the Soundshell, I started to think about the obvious parallels between the 1931 earthquake and the 2023 cyclone. 

The festival that arose out of our Cult of the Earthquake, at its heart, celebrates resilience. 

The earthquake hurt us. We don’t often speak, now, of that half of the story, but the story wouldn’t exist without it: mass destruction, loss of life, a cityscape changed forever. To celebrate that time is to celebrate ninety-three years of rude good health in this region. It’s a declaration that we are still here, still thriving, still happy. It’s not hard to draw a parallel with the surreal experience Cyclone Gabrielle dragged us all through: mass destruction, loss of life, valleys and river plains changed forever. In this first year after the cyclone, it’s vital that we make the same declaration. 

The pandemic killed the Art Deco Festival in 2021. It was cancelled at the last minute, on the Tuesday afternoon before a planned Wednesday start, due to COVID restrictions. In 2022, a hugely scaled-down festival was held: over 200 planned events were cancelled. 

In 2023, the event disappeared without a trace. The cyclone had hit us two days before it was due to start. At the time, the Art Deco Trust could not even make the obvious official statement, because power lines were still down. Nobody spoke – indeed, thought – of the Festival. 

In April 2020, when we moved from COVID alert level 4 to level 3, my kids and I came into the Napier CBD to take a long-promised walk outside of our own neighbourhood. I will never forget the silence of that day. We walked past dark shops in the lower Emerson Street block; we were the only people. Those who gathered at the one or two cafés dispensing pre-ordered coffees smiled at each other tentatively. We all held our hands determinedly by our sides, having been officially warned not to touch. Feeling the ridiculousness, the impossibility, of all this, I cried.

Venturing into town for the first time after Gabrielle was eerie in a different way. Shops were dark then too, retailers trying desperately to trade without light, without Eftpos. Traffic lights were down; drivers were wary. People were shell-shocked. We were allowed to hug this time, and we took advantage of it. Feeling the scale, the mess, of all this, I cried then too. 

When I was in town on Sunday, among the boomers in their genuine pearls and the young mothers in their two-dollar-shop versions, what did I see, what did I feel? 

I saw people reaching out to each other without thinking about it – stroking a fur stole, admiring a striped blazer, hugging a friend. I saw the hot Hawke’s Bay sun shining down on grinning kids with ice creams and indulgent grandmothers with coffees. I saw the beautifully manicured gardens along the Marine Parade looking their greenest, brightest, summertime best, Pania of the Reef smiling across them and the people smiling back. 

(I’ve always viscerally loved the tweeness of those Marine Parade gardens. I love that the grass borders are as crisp as an ad in the Yellow Pages. I love that there are hollyhocks. I love that the crushed-shell ground cover beneath the iconic Norfolk Pines is carefully swept, like the floor in a Depression-era kitchen.)

I saw people calling out to strangers – not about how their orchards were faring under the silt, about whether they were okay, but about their possible success in the Soap Box Derby. I saw happiness. 

When thousands of people agree to a particular – a very particular – dress code, that’s an expression of unity. It’s an acknowledgement of ninety-three years of being in this together, through thick and thin, the fruitful and the frightful.

We have a way to go, in making sure that this festival is for everyone who lives here – not just the well-off descendants of the men who planned and built our beautiful streetscapes, but the descendants of all who lived through those hard times of yore, and those who have lived through recent hard times too. It’s a challenge similar to challenges that many in New Zealand, in all sorts of contexts, are currently facing: how to make sure that all our celebrations honour season and place, for everybody – like Matariki, like Waitangi Day. 

I hope we can work together to make sure that Art Deco is all about who we are, because I reckon who we are, here in Hawke’s Bay, is worth celebrating. In the year of kotahitanga, it has never been clearer that we’re all in this together.

Daisy Coles is a freelance editor, proofreader and manuscript assessor who is one half of the professional print editors’ collective Coles & Lopez. She is married to a Hungarian, and with her husband and three children divides her year between a small settlement in Hungary and an even smaller settlement in Hawke’s Bay, Waipātiki Beach.


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  1. why is it that anything that happens people have to bring a Maori windage about it.
    why can’t people enjoy an occasion with out having to bring race into it. they are the people causing all the division in this country

    1. You ask why. Silly question really. Because, to a greater or lesser extent (and your choice ) it is part of who and what we are and I am proud to include things Maori in my day just as I include things German, Danish, Scots and English in my day

  2. I like your thinking, Daisy. This is what will bring people together; putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

  3. Georgia… A six dollar small flat white.
    Nuanced though, they might be out of business were it not for boomers.

  4. Good thoughts, Daisy, and well expressed. I was in town on Saturday and Sunday and loved being in a happy, relaxed community enjoying the free sights and sounds of the weekend. Not everyone got dressed up and that did not matter at all. And, congratulations to the city council for managing traffic and making the streets and gardens look so good.

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