Picture Library: Mollie Rodie

In the build up to the Royal wedding there was a lot of coverage on what the wedding dress will look like and who would be designing it. As a lover of children’s books this hype has brought back a whole lot of memories of a book on Princess Diana I cherished as a child (in fact a quick phone call to my mother confirmed it was still on the bookcase in my family home).

This book ‘Diana, the Fairy Tale Princess’ by Lucy Butler is a beautifully illustrated book written by a twelve-year-old girl about the life of the Princess of Wales from birth to motherhood. Like most little girls my excitement would build as I got to the place in the story with a drawing of her wedding dress.

The illustrations within this book reminded me of a collection of exquisite costume sketches that exist in Te Papa’s own collection, by Marion (Mollie) Florence Rodie.

With the expertise on hand of Te Papa’s Senior History Curator, Claire Regnault, co-author of The Dress Circle: New Zealand and contributor nzdresscircle.wordpress.com, I was able to find out a lot more about the woman behind this collection of designs.

Claire informed me that Mollie 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 Wellington’s Fashion Limited, the fashion house 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 greater good. While she provided advice for revamping ‘old and worn dresses’, 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.

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

Mollie gifted these sketches to Te Papa in 2009.