The decade of avant-garde hair

When writing The Dress Circle we had to make some tough decisions about what to include and what to leave aside for another project. We decided that underwear was out, along with accessories, make-up and shoes. Another fashionable area we realised that we could not do justice to was hair styling – a profession which like fashion, has its leaders and legends. 

Reminiscing about Wellington in the 1980s one of my interviewees commented that the Wellington fashion scene was ruled by hairdressers. Amongst the city’s avant-garde stars were Derek Elvy of Buoy (one time flatmate of fashion designer Kerrie Hughes), Les Dalley of Grace and Arthur Tauhore of Love – three hair stylists who pushed the boundaries of their art. A friend recently sent me this wonderful link to Youtube which features all three (not to mention my friend who doesn’t seem to have aged a bit!) Its a great little piece put together by 17 year old Kahra Scott James for a long lost TV programme called Life. It provides a glimpse into a decade in which hair quite literally reached great heights.

For those of you who fondly remember Arthur, you can also watch this music video featuring Arthur alongside other satorially splendid members of Bump’n Ugly at Paisley Park in Wellington in 1991. Arthur was also well known about town as a singer and drag artist. Other bands included Trasch and Urban Dwellers. Arthur passed away in 1993 following AIDS complications. His life is memorialised in the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt, and he remains in the memories of many.

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The Dress Circle Nominated for NZ Book Awards!

Hot on the heels of our well received appearance at the Auckland Readers & Writers Festival in May, we found out on Wednesday morning that The Dress Circle is a finalist in this year’s NZ Post Book Awards. The Dress Circle is one of five finalists in the Illustrated Non-Fiction section.

If you have enjoyed The Dress Circle, please show your support by voting for The Dress Circle in the People’s Choice Awards, and be in to win $1000 worth of book tokens to enhance your library.

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Auckland Writers Festival 2011

Join the three of us on Saturday 14th May at the Auckland Writers Festival.  We will be giving a behind the scenes look at The Dress Circle, revealing stories that have come to light since the book came out as well as some of our personal highlights and favourites.  Here are the details of our session – look forward to seeing you there.

Photo courtesy of Brian Culy and Home NZ

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Hager lives on

This in another lovely image that didn’t make it into the book. It is of an unknown machinist at Hager Shirts in Levin, taken sometime in the late 1950s. I thought it was a great image of one of the many women that powered New Zealand fashion for so many years. I always thought it would make a great frontispiece to kick off the book – but alas.

I was reminded of it the other day, when a young would-be Wellington fashion designer/ manufacturer just starting out – told me she’s discovered a concentration of well-trained out-workers and professional home based machinists all around Levin.

It seems that the legacy of Hager’s lives on.


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A chance encounter

Douglas and I were in Rotorua recently, speaking about The Dress Circle and some of the new stories that have arised since the book was released.  In the audience of our talk was Robyn McBride, of Hamilton, who had come along to share a slice of her family history, which she discovered in the pages of The Dress Circle.

Robyn bought The Dress Circle as a Christmas gift for her vintage-clothing loving daughter-in-law, but only had occasion to flick through it herself when laid up with her leg in plaster.  Settling in to read from the beginning, Robyn was amazed to open the book to find her mother and grandmother staring out at her from page 18 – a photograph of one of New Zealand’s first bikinis on display in the window of Wellington’s James Smith department store.

For Robyn, whose mother Nola died when she was 15, this candid photograph captured her mother as a stylish young woman. Nola later went on to establish a career as a milliner. Robyn’s family albums reveal several images of her mother and father, Jack and Nola Gaelic, who she describes as follows: “A stylish post-war couple, Dad in his ‘de-mob’ Navy trench coat, scarf and hat (he always wore one in the street and always tipped his brim to a lady), and Mum in her coat either home-made, in those tight economic times, or made for her by dressmaker friends in exchange for a hat or two”

Here’s a photo of the two taking a walk down Wellington’s Lambton Quay c1946, Nola wearing the same coat as that she is seen wearing the image of James Smiths, seen on page 18 of The Dress Circle.

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Mollie Rodie: Queen of the Carnivals

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.

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Secrets of A Lady’s Paradise – inside the Trilby Yates salon

Kate Lambourne (front row, second from right) and the girls of Trilby Yates. Digsy Yates at centre back. Ata Ellery (nee Yates) top left.
All images – collection of Kate Lambourne

One of the great pleasures (and great frustrations) of a project like The Dress Circle, is the new information that inevitably comes to light too late to be included within the finished book.  Throughout our research process new labels and names continued to emerge, right up to and beyond the deadlines for images and manuscripts.  Although on one hand one of the hardest parts of the process is to realise that the information just can’t make it to the printers, it is also a great delight when someone contacts you with the missing peice of the puzzle regardless of when it happens to arrive. We knew that this would happen once The Dress Circle was published and so have been waiting with baited breath to see what hidden treasures that might arrive in the wake of the book.

Shortly after the book was published we received a charming letter from one Kate Lambourne, congratulating us on the finished product. In her letter, Kate mentioned that she had worked in the Trilby Yates salon in the late 40s and early 50s, later pursuing a career as a fashion model.  Sensing an untapped information source, we immediately made contact to ask about her experiences of the salon, which remains an important area of local fashion research.  Kate’s reply revealed both an insiders perspective on the character (and characters) of the salon, as well as a wealth of new photographs of both the staff and designs of Trilby Yates – A Ladies Paradise.

Kate added in some important new information about the people behind the salon, conjuring up a real sense of the formidible force that was Julia Yates.  Recalling her first experience of a Tribly Yates season opening, Kate writes ‘titled ladies, some from Australia, gathered outsite for opening time and when the doors were flung open I was pushed aside and all but stepped on. Women in full bling fighting over a garment – and in one case a dress was torn apart.  Julia would watch from her office chuckling away at the behaviour downstairs.’

Kate also helpfully gave a name to another key designer behind Trilby Yates, noting that it was June Gould (nee Todd) who came into a design role following the departure of Nancy Hudson (Huddy) for Melbourne in the late 1940s.  June (known as Toddles) was the designer while Kate herself undertook her apprenticship, which began with ‘making tea, picking up pins off the floor and taking the hefty rubbish bins down two flights of treacherous steps’.  Kate gradually graduated to making her own designs under the Trilby Yates Ltd label, as well as taking sole charge of the salon on Friday nights. 

From left: Venie De Mar, June Todd (Toddles) and Gwen Ralph in the salon

Here’s another new images of what we think are Tribly Yates designs, although a little more research is needed to confirm this.

Garments modelled by (from left) Rita Harvey, unknown, Annette Bampton, Kate Posa

Kate’s letters have loads more exciting infomation about Trilby Yates, which I’ll save for another day.  As well, she included some other images from her days as a high fashion model.  While we can look at them in detail another time, here’s one that was particuarly exciting for us. The image comes from a Woman’s Weekly photoshoot of Hall Ludlow Model garments from 1961, which Douglas put considerable efforts into sourcing original photographs to no avail.  As these were key images, they went into The Dress Circle as magazine scans (p.78 top left), so it is with pleasure we were able to finally locate an original in all its glory.

Kate Lambourne modelling Hall Ludlow Model c1961. Photographer John Charnock

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