When William Broome, a New Plymouth menswear retailer, invented the Swanndri® bush shirt near the end of the nineteenth century, he couldn’t have foretold that it would become a kiwi icon. It has been featured on a postage stamp, and is such a loved item in many people’s wardrobes that Te Papa launched a nationwide competition inviting people to send in their favourite Swanndri® stories. Te Papa staff were amazed by the number of people who referred to their Swanndri® bush shirts as ‘Old Faithful’!
The winners of the competition were Ron Mitchell and D J Miller.
The Swanndri® business all started when Broome designed a short-sleeved woollen overshirt and immersed it in a special (and to this day, secret) waterproofing formula. He patented his invention on 23 December 1913, and devised the now famous Swanndri® logo – a swan in a circle. He had his shirts manufactured at the Bruce Woollen Mill in Milton, Southland.
These garments were quickly adopted by outdoor workers like hunters and farmers, and became renowned for their warmth and waterproof qualities in all weathers.
In 1927, a tailor named John McKendrick added a hood, a laced front, and long sleeves to the original design, creating the olive green 103, the Swanndri® bush shirt as we know it today. McKendrick’s firm – Jack Mack Limited – began to produce the Swanndri® bush shirt, and pay royalties to the Broome family.
In September 1964, Jack Mack Limited bought the rights to the Swanndri® trademark. In 1974 the company name changed to John Mack Limited then, on 12 March 1975, they were bought out by Alliance Textiles Limited in Oamaru. As the new owners of the patent for the Swanndri®, Alliance Textiles developed the wide range of Swanndri® garments that are available today.
The Swanndri® is now a unisex garment, worn by everyone from farmhands to holidaying yuppies. It is still made of New Zealand wool, shrunk in a special process to increase its moisture and wind resistance. Together with jandals and togs, the bush shirt is one of the great Kiwi ‘uniforms’, symbolising our love of outdoor life.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).