As The Dress Circle is very much a book about fashion as opposed to costume, we had to force ourselves to exclude material that while seductive, did not really fit our brief. One such exclusion was the story of Mollie Rodie, who makes a brief appearance as a fashion writer in the book, and her involvement in a series of fund-raising pageants held in Wellington during the second World War, for which a collection of exquisite costume sketches and a photo album exist.
Mollie Rodie, Costume design for Victory Queen Carnival: ’Queen of the Fighting Services’, 1941. Courtesy of Te Papa.
Marion (Mollie) Florence Rodie was born in Invercargill in 1919. Having shown talent for drawing at high school, she went on to study at the Wellington Technical College, and followed her ambitions to London where she attended the Royal College of Arts and completed an apprenticeship in fashion design and cutting at the Fashion Arts Studio. When she returned to New Zealand she was snapped up by the Wellington’s Fashion Limited, the fashion house which responsible for the popular Fashionbilt label.
Mollie was not content with a full-time job as a trainee designer for a leading New Zealand company. In 1937 she wrote to the New Zealand Weekly News suggesting that she was just the person to give their fashion page a lift. She could provide their readers with a contemporary ‘New Zealand focus suited to local women’s needs, our climate and popular events’. Her brazenness paid off, and she soon found herself writing a regular column not only for the Weekly News but also for the New Zealand Herald and the Evening Post.
While the dailies dropped her column following the advent of World War II (the price of newsprint skyrocketed, and column inches were precious) the Weekly News kept her on, and Rodie committed herself to harnessing her fashion knowledge for the greater good. While she provided advice for revamping ‘old and worn dresses, used remnants and odd cherished (fabric) lengths’, she also became actively involved in fund-raising for the war effort – namely as the creative force behind a series of Queen Carnivals in Wellington.
Mollie Rodie, Costume design for Victory Queen Carnival: Queen of Hutt Valley, 1941. Courtesy of Te Papa.
Queen Carnivals were popular throughout the country as fund-raising events which helped mobilise communities and raise war-torn spirits. The ‘Queens’ competed not on the basis of their beauty, but on their ability to raise money. The woman who raised the most money, was crowned Carnival Queen at a pageant event, which itself was a fundraiser. Mollie Rodie designed the costumes for a number of pageants, and ensured that despite rationing, the pageants bore her own touch of improvised glamour. Te Papa holds 65 of her design sketches for the Pageant of Empire, the Victory Queen Carnival and the Pageant of British Queens as well as a photo album.
As a singleton my favourite is the design for the ‘Spinsters’ Club’ at the Victory Queen Carnival, and as a former resident of the much maligned Hutt Valley, my second favourite has to be Queen of Hutt Valley. Never has a Spinsterhood or the Hutt Valley looked so sleek and glamorous.
Mollie Rodie, Costume design for Victory Queen Carnival: ’Spinsters’ Club’, 1941. Courtesy of Te Papa.
While Mollie drew idealised, angular beauties fit for the silver screen, her photo album reveals that the local women who took up the fund-raising cause carried her designs off, on the whole, with great aplomb. The images of the decorated hall (think cardboard, foil, crepe paper on a large scale), packed to bursting with glamorously attired people, are akin to a 1930s Hollywood film set.
Mollie gifted these sketches to Te Papa in 2009. These were her second great gift to our costume and fashion history. Mollie not only designed and wrote about fashion, she collected it. Her passion was not for high end, but for everyday fashions and accessories, which she collected with a vision of opening a ‘resource centre, where… historians, designers, writers in all genres, students, school groups et al could research specialist subjects…’ Mollie was one of our early fashion historians. Eventually, realising that her aspiration was beyond the scope of a private endeavour, Mollie sold her collection to the Canterbury Museum in 1984. The collection comprises over 3000 garments and accessories, and has been the subject of a paper by Canterbury Museum curator Jennifer Queree, Beyond the black singlet: the Mollie Rodie Mackenzie Collection, and a Masters thesis by J D Judson, The characterisation of New Zealand women’s dress in the 1950s: The Mollie Rodie MacKenzie Collection, 1999.
Mollie Rodie images kindly supplied by Te Papa. These images are copyright of Te Papa and can be purchased through Te Papa’s Picture Library.