Caroline Daley

Associate Professor of History and Dean of Graduate Studies Caroline Daley talks about her road to becoming a New Zealand historian focused on the glamour, glitz and fun in our country's past.

Caroline Daley - Associate Professor of History and Dean of Graduate Studies
Caroline Daley, Associate Professor of History and Dean of Graduate Studies

I'm the only member of my family who's ever been to university. I'm from a bog standard working class background. I was born in south London, near Heathrow. My father was a cargo worker at the airport. After he died, my mother married a New Zealander and we moved to New Zealand when I was eight.

I was a convent girl. I went to Sacred Heart College in Napier and took up history in the 6th form. It was history or maths at my school. It was a small girls' school and the smart girls were meant to do maths and the slower ones, history. I bucked the trend and did history.

In my seventh form year we did the New Zealand part of the syllabus. It was a bit strange because people weren't really interested in New Zealand history then. But it was good too because I started thinking about New Zealand rather than the Tudors and the Stuarts and all those other things people assume that history is about. Because I was capable my teacher pushed me a bit and then when I went to Victoria university (VUW), I enrolled in Stage One New Zealand History. I was told by my academic supervisers that because I was clever I could study European History and go on to an Ivy League school in the US or an Oxford-type experience in the UK. I said "thankyou but I'll be doing New Zealand History" and I kept doing it.

My lecturers at VUW were Jamie Belich, Miles Fairburn and Jock Philips – all people who in the 1980s wrote landmark books on New Zealand history. I responded to their work and approach.

I like to think I'm open to what happened in the past rather than assuming I know and therefore find evidence to support what I know. The exciting thing about history is the things you don't know — and finding out about those.
I began a masters in history and converted it to a PhD on gender relations in Taradale from the 1880s to the late 1920s. At the time a lot of American and British, and especially feminist, historians were working on community studies so I was interested in taking that micro-historical, feminist approach to the New Zealand environment, which no one had done.

The stuff that really got me interested was what people did in their spare time and how that played into their identity formation. I interviewed men and women who had grown up in the community — and this is all before Napier's 1931 earthquake. I would ask them about family life, church and school. What intrigued me was how differently the men and women responded. By accident I ended up interviewing some brothers and sisters and when I looked back later, it was like they grew up in different families. It was the way they positioned their stories and how they presented them. The women almost always denied alcohol was a problem in the past whereas the men regaled me with their stories. How so and so would go the pub and get so drunk he'd get in the back of his cart and let his horse take him home. They told stories of bar room brawls that had happened before they were born. Even if the men I was interviewing didn't drink they knew the stories and they thought it was appropriate to tell them to me. It was their notion of what a real man was all about. Whereas the women were far more romantic in their stories: how they met the person who became their husband, or their first boyfriend. How important their first pay cheque was, and what they spent it on. Or the first time they got their hair bobbed. New Zealand History doesn't prepare us for their focus on consumerism. We concentrate so much on government policy or economic changes, and those things matter at a global level in society, but when people think about their own lives, it was their wedding day or the birth of their children that really matters.

In mid-1993 I left Victoria and became a lecturer in New Zealand History at The University of Auckland, and I've been here ever since.

As well as leisure a lot of my history research has focused on beauty and the body. My 2003 book Leisure and Pleasure tells the story of the reshaping and revealing of the New Zealand body in the first half of the twentieth century. That reshaping came through body building and going to the gym long before anyone had heard of Les Mills. The revealing took place on the beach, as neck-to-knee swimsuits shrank into bikinis and speedos, and as New Zealanders discarded their clothes and joined nudist camps.

My latest project is a book-length study which revisits twentieth century New Zealand history through the lens of beauty and physique contests. Beauty Queens and Physique Kings is about the glitz and glamour of the past, the fun and consumerism that has been lost from the nation's story.

I think New Zealand historians haven't allowed for enough fun in the past. People focus on the restriction, and repression of early New Zealand. One historian referred to New Zealand as 'a tight society'. But I don’t see it. (Laughs )

When I started my research for Beauty Queens and Physique Kings I didn't think there would be male beauty contests at the turn of the twentieth century in New Zealand. Nothing in any of our history I've read over the last 30 years prepared me to find stories in the newspaper about men strutting their stuff across the stage and getting voted Mr Handsome. But New Zealand was right up with the play. The women's contests weren't one off events. Miss New Zealand contestants used to go on three month tours around the country. The engagement with the public was huge, the same as it is today with television shows like Master Chef, New Zealand Idol and Top Model. They are the modern equivalent.

I'm in a new role at The University of Auckland now as the Dean of Graduate Studies. I have oversight of the doctoral candidates across the University and there's almost 2000 of them. The sorts of skills you develop doing a subject like History — the ability to find out material; the research and analytical skills; understanding the importance of writing; how you structure something; how you craft it; reading — are absolutely transferrable skills. You may not end up using the content in the same way. That might be handy for pub quizzes or after dinner stories and making you a better educated person. But the generic skills from Humanities are absolutely priceless and people do end up doing jobs like the Dean of Graduate Studies with those skills.

What do I do in my leisure time? I don't have a lot of leisure time. [laughs] I travel a bit with my job. I like to eat. I’ll try anything. [A dead rat in Vietnam?] I’m sure I probably have. I like to cook. I like design. I go to the movies. I like furniture. I have a fabulous couch. I found it in New York last year.

One of the things that has intrigued me in my academic work is the lack of change in how we spend our leisure time. We think of consumption and shopping as a more recent leisure habit, with seven day shopping and the rise of the mall, but New Zealanders have always been consumers, men as well as women. I'm one of those women who remembers how she spent her first pay cheque.