Te Papa staff were very sad to hear of the recent passing of Marion Florence Mackenzie (née Rodie) on 9 April in Queensland (1919–2020). We knew her as Mollie Rodie, the creator of many beautiful costume sketches for fundraising pageants and carnivals in the Second World War (1939–45), now held in Te Papa’s collections.
Mollie’s work is a great reminder of home front spirit at a time of much social upheaval.
Mollie Rodie was born in Invercargill on 25 October 1919. All her schooling years were at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington. Having shown talent for drawing, she went on to study at Wellington Technical College when she was 16. In 1936, she sailed with her mother to Britain for a year. She attended Heatherley’s School of Art in London where she took classes specialising in black and white illustration.
When Mollie returned to New Zealand she worked for Fashions Limited in Wellington which produced the popular Fashionbilt label. She learnt invaluable skills about materials and how they hung, fastenings, and pattern drafting – all of which she applied throughout her career.
Mollie was versatile and reliable. She could both write copy and illustrate – these skills attracted the attention of the Evening Post where she began contributing to the women’s page; work that later expanded to the Auckland Weekly News. She had a long and successful career in writing popular fashion columns and features for several newspapers and magazines published in New Zealand.
Bringing joy to the home front
During the Second World War, Mollie harnessed her fashion knowledge for the greater good. She provided advice on revamping clothes and upcycling scraps of fabric, and became a creative force in fundraising pageants and carnivals on the suggestion of her mother who was involved behind the scenes.
Queen Carnivals were particularly popular throughout the country as fundraising events which helped mobilise communities and raise war-torn spirits. ‘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 designed the costumes for several pageants and carnivals, and searched all over Wellington to find the right materials to provide touches of glamour to proceedings.
Victory Queen Carnival
In June 1941 came Mollie’s most glamorous work for the grand finale of the Victory Queen Carnival held in Wellington Town Hall, a triumphant end to a four-month fundraising effort by hundreds of volunteers.
Regardless of the fun and glamour, the Victory Queen Carnival was a serious business set against the backdrop of war. The failure of the Battle of Crete in May 1941, the loss of New Zealand servicemen, and subsequent evacuation and imprisonment of New Zealand troops would have weighed heavily on many during this period. Mollie later recalled ‘there was a great bond between women in those times, many with their men absent, great worries and concerns, not to mention much sorrow and loss’ (1). She hoped her glamorous designs would lift people ‘out of this world of ours’ (2).
She was successful. The Evening Post reported that ‘the person directly responsible for the magnificent spectacle…was Miss Mollie Rodie’ (4 June 1941).
Beyond the pageants
Mollie married Hal Dillon Scobie Mackenzie at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, on 15 August 1942. He left afterwards to serve in Italy during the war, returning to New Zealand in early 1946. The couple moved to Central Otago where Hal ran the historic Kyeburn sheep station, and Mollie continued a busy freelance career in fashion. They later moved to a low country farm near Timaru, where Mollie began illustrating fashion advertising (press and catalogues) for the Christchurch department store, Ballantynes.
In the 1960s and 70s, Mollie amassed a significant collection of New Zealand-made clothing mainly from the 20th century. Her aim was to collect everyday clothing and to show some of the key developments in textiles and dress development. The collection of nearly 4,000 garments and accessories is now held by Canterbury Museum. More recently she also presented a small collection of Victorian clothing to the Ferrymead Heritage Park, also in Christchurch.
Mollie and Hal moved back to Central Otago for a time. They began spending winters in Australia, moving permanently to Burleigh Heads, Queensland, in the mid-1980s, where Mollie spent the rest of her well-lived life, turning 100 last year.
See Mollie Rodie’s work online and photographs of her sketches come to life in costumes and pageantry
(1) Quérée, J. and Wood, A.P. (2003). Beyond the black singlet: the Mollie Rodie Mackenzie Collection of 20th century New Zealand clothing. Records of Canterbury Museum Vol 17, 48–75.
(2) Mackenzie, M.R. (2 July 2013). Personal communication with Stephanie Gibson, Curator History, Te Papa.
Great article Stephanie. What am amazing woman. Will have to read more about her now.
Excellent blog, Stephanie, which tells an inspiring story about a remarkable and talented woman. In her unique way, Mollie was a terrific feminist role model.
It would have been nice if later in life she had got some kind of honour for keeping people’s spirits up during a difficult time in our history. The exhibition that she lived to see at Te Papa and this blog are at least some kind of honour.