Here’s one thing I’ve noticed about New Zealand in my time here: Kiwi English is big on abbreviations. So many words here are transformed into shorter (and more endearing) versions of themselves. Afternoon becomes arvo, tradesman becomes tradie, biscuit becomes bikkie…
And gumboots becomes gummies.
As in: Ellie! What are you doing wearing your gummies inside?
I’ve been doing a lot of field work recently, managing experiments that have me out in the muck in the early morning. My rubber boots— or gumboots, as I’ve learned to call ‘em— keep my feet warm and cozy dry in the field, and I can’t really be bothered to change them for more run-of-the-mill street shoes when I get back to lab. But gumboots, worn inside, are an uncommon choice for footwear (especially on gorgeous sunny spring days with nary a cloud in the sky), and that’s led to a few surprised comments from passing labmates. These interactions have revealed some fascinating glimpses into Kiwi fashion and culture.
A disclaimer, first: these glimpses are only that— tiny observations from a few perspectives on the vast and complicated topic of “New Zealand culture”. Of course, Kiwi culture can’t be summed up in broad strokes from such slim moments. Still, it’s interesting to see what you can learn from a pair of boots.
Starting with the name for these shoes. In the States, I’m used to calling them rainboots, or galoshes, or (for special occasions) wellies. In New Zealand, they’re gumboots— or, when abbreviated, gummies.
This is also, I’ve learned, the name for a certain quintessentially Kiwi way of taking your tea. Gumboot tea is as no-nonsense as the boots for which it’s named— a black tea bag, a splash of milk, and you are, as they say, good as gold.
That no-frills-no-nonsense aesthetic is a classic part of classic New Zealand identity. An older coworker, on seeing my boots as we both mixed up a cup of gumboot tea in the break room, commented on how they seemed very functional. It was a compliment. I confided that I felt a bit chagrined wearing them around the office— the other university students, I told him, seem to dress very smartly. He raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t always that way, he told me. Nope, a few decades ago Kiwis prided themselves on their straightforward fashions. You wore the clothes that’d get the job done, that was the Kiwi way.
His words reminded me of an idea I’ve heard about ever since I first arrived in NZ, dubbed the “No. 8 Wire Mentality”. It’s described as the belief that a proper New Zealander can fix anything they need with nothing but a bit of fencing wire. It’s a valuable skill, especially if you live on a predominantly agrarian island that’s a few thousand miles from the sources of manufactured farming gear. Resourceful, no-nonsense, and perhaps a little bit scrappy— these are central aspects of one idea of “what it means” to be Kiwi.
I contemplated this as I scuffled my way back to the lab. En route, I ran into our lab manager, Jan (you may remember her from Nancy Drew). “Oh, Ellie, those gummies!” she exclaimed. She’s a caring sort of lady, and wanted to check that my feet weren’t getting too cold when I wore them in the field. “The rubber just conducts heat too well, it’s not insulating at all. What we used to do is cut up bits of old rug to make liners for our gumboots— I’ll bring some in for you, we’ll sort it!”
True to her word, the next week she brought in not only bits of old rug, but also old sheepskins to line the boots. The skins come from her sheep farm (naturally), trimmings left over from larger sheep-hides. Not only is this resourceful, it’s efficient— making full use of what you’ve got.
And so my feet are now clad in a quintessentially Kiwi covering: no-nonsense gummies with reused trimmings of NZ sheepskin. And when I wear them, I feel like I’m stepping into one idea of ‘kiwi”. One idea out of many, of course— but an interesting one all the same.
Until next time,
PS: If anyone reading has insights into where culture comes from/how to go through the world noticing patterns but not writing people into boxes/how to speak about these things without tying yourself up in disclaimers…please share. Inquiring minds want to know.