A Whanganui fashion designer is the focus of the Museum's new Outfit of the Month from Friday, June 4.
On that day at 12.15pm, the Museum's collection manager, Trish Nugent-Lyne, will lead a quick-fire talk about the designer and her featured outfit.
Rosalie Gwilliam designed and made a halter neck dress in 1979 to wear to a conference she was attending in the USA. Whanganui born and bred, Rosalie was a fascinating and very motivated woman. She was an award-winning fashion designer from the 1960s to 1990s, an award-winning photographer from the 1990s to 2014 as well as an inspiring teacher and a pilot.
Born Rosalie Burbush on December 8, 1938, the young Rosalie, according to her mother, had been sewing since her legs were long enough to reach the treadle of a sewing machine. From 12 she was making her own clothes. A talented achiever from an early age she recorded 23 firsts, 14 seconds and two thirds in the Whanganui Horticultural Society competitions while at school, in competitions for needlework to flower arranging. When she finished Whanganui Girls College, she attended Auckland Teachers College where she first started designing clothes.
On completion of Teachers College in 1957 she took up a position as a roving home science teacher in the Rangitīkei area. In 1961 she took up learning to fly light aircraft, even though she could not drive a car or ride a bicycle. In the same year she had the first of her two weddings when she married Ian Thomson. For the wedding she made her own wedding dress which took her a total of 1000 hours. The dress was hand-embroidered and embellished with pearls, crystals, gold and silver beads. Her second wedding was in 1967 to Barry Gwilliam.
Rosalie's first wedding dress and 25 other garments made and designed by her were collected by Eden Hore. Eden was a successful sheep and cattle farmer from Naseby in Central Otago who, inexplicably, built up a collection of 276 New Zealand-designed high fashion gowns during the 1970s and 1980s. He housed the gowns in a former tractor shed on his property. When Eden died the collection was purchased by the Central Otago District Council. It is an amazing resource of New Zealand fashion design history.
Rosalie entered her first fashion design competition in 1963, gaining third prize in the Gown of the Year Competition. From that time, she was hooked, and entered almost every year in the Benson and Hedges and then the SmokeFree Fashion Design Awards, as well as the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Her designs were accepted almost every time she entered, and she placed in six awards. She would even fly herself up to Auckland to attend the award ceremony.
Rosalie's designs were often years ahead of their time. For the 1975 Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards she had designed a dress she named "Scintilla". The dress featured a gold beaded cone bra. This was 15 years before Jean Paul Gaultier designed his famous bra for Madonna.
In her designs, Rosalie was eager to use the new knit fabrics that were starting to be produced. Nowadays we take easy-care fabrics for granted, assuming that we can readily find clothing that is wrinkle resistant, durable and easy to wash. In the 1960s, that concept was new and exciting.
In 1971 Rosalie went to the USA to learn to teach others how to sew the new knit fabrics, one of the first in the States to do so. Upon her return, she set up her own shop in Guyton St, Whanganui, and started classes called Stretch and Sew Fabrics. During the 10 years she had the shop over 8000 adult students attended her classes.
In the mid-1980s Rosalie went back to teaching as a food and technology teacher. In her spare time, she took up photography. Again she excelled, winning international awards and featuring in exhibitions in 20 different countries.
Rosalie's attitude to life and her art was never conservative. As she herself once said, "Life is too short to waste time, I'm always on the go and I love it, I only drop from sheer exhaustion". Rosalie died in 2014 leaving a collection of her gowns, designs and photographs to the Whanganui Regional Museum.
* Trish Nugent-Lyne is collection manager at Whanganui Regional Museum.