Affectionately dubbed “The Queen of Wool” by Te Papa, the
national museum of Aotearoa New Zealand, Mary Annette Hay was the New
Zealand Wool Board’s Promotions Officer for eight years, 1948 - 1956.
During this time she created marvellous wool spectacles which toured the country. A clever mix of form and function - Mary Annette wrote and narrated colourful performances showcasing designer fashions in wool to New Zealanders, all the while promoting wool’s many benefits. With evocative titles such as “Wool After Dark”, “The Romance of Wool” and “The Miracle of Wool” (to name a few), Mary Annette’s innovative productions were widely attended. European haute couture designers enjoyed the idea of her wool spectacles, and agreed to send garments to Mary Annette as the last stop of their season preview. As a result Mary Annette accrued a wonderful collection of woollen garments which she later gifted to Te Papa. Here, Te Papa’s Senior Curator History, Claire Regnault pays homage to Mary Annette Hay, and we relive some of her wonderful shows promoting wool.
In March 1948, Mary Annette Burgess, a vivacious 23 year old, with a diploma in art and training in the theatre, settled into her office at the Wellington headquarters of the New Zealand Wool Board. She had just been appointed to the position of Promotions Officer. Her office was as expected, except for the presence of a wardrobe – a wardrobe whose doors opened to reveal a collection of exquisite couture garments by designers most New Zealand women could only dream of. Each garment was fashioned from wool, the fibre Mary Annette had just been engaged to promote.
The garments, which included an elegant, finely pleated woollen evening gown and tailored jacket by the House of Dorville, had been sent to the New Zealand Wool Board by the London office of the International Wool Secretariat (IWS). For a young woman who came of age during the war-time rationing, and whose work clothes comprised a single suit, the wardrobe exuded other-worldly luxury. Best of all, the clothes fitted the slender Promotions Officer like a glove. Over the following eight years, Mary Annette would work with the IWS to replenish the wardrobe many times over.
Mary Annette’s tenure at the Wool Board coincided with ‘the golden age of couture’. Spanning the years 1947 to 1957, the decade witnessed the expansion of London’s couture industry, and the rebirth of war-torn Paris as the world’s fashion capital. During this period, the IWS worked closely with organisations such as Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers and Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, to promote wool as a fashion fabric without equal.
When Mary Annette took up her new position, the IWS had just
marked its tenth anniversary. Its core aims were to promote wool and
facilitate research. Its formation reflected an international trend
towards the collective marketing and promotion of agricultural
products[i], and an acute awareness of the emerging threat of new
The IWS was just gaining momentum when Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939. Following the outbreak of war, ‘Wool Control’ came into force in Britain, and the IWS had to place their publicity plans on hold, and re-direct their research efforts into developing wool-based products for the military.[ii] However, before the call came to stop encouraging consumer demand for wool, the IWS had agreed to supply the Wool Council (the NZ Wool Board’s predecessor) with a collection of high-fashion garments and fabrics for display at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition. [iii]
The Centennial Exhibition opened in November 1939 and ran through
to 4 May 1940. In January 1940, the Wool Council presented the IWS’s
collection of international garments at a dance and fashion parade at
the Exhibition Cabaret,
[iv] along with a film focusing on the importance of wool throughout the Empire.[v]
An attending journalist from the Evening Post wrote that on seeing the garments:
… guests realised, perhaps for the first time, the loveliness of the new woollen materials, which included sheer voiles in wool, wool lame with golden sheen, vivid floral voiles, and delaines of silken effect, wool taffetas and the finest of wool laces. [vi]
The accompanying commentary was delivered by Mrs Ina Allen, the
Wool Council’s first Publicity Officer. In keeping with the IWS’s
messaging, Mrs Allen focused on the ‘new role’ that wool played in
fashion as a result of ‘exhaustive research’. Woollen garments, she
extolled no longer needed to be ‘heavy and stodgy.’ They could now be as
‘soft and sheer as silk, light and washable as cotton, non-creasing and
The garments ranged from practical men’s trousers by DAKS to a ‘dove grey and pink beaded model’ by Elsa Schiaparelli,[viiii] whom the IWS celebrated as ‘the first Paris designer to use wool in the evening’.[ix] By
the time Schiaparelli’s gown was on parade in New Zealand, however, the
couturier had turned her talents to designing air-raid shelter trouser
crippling impact of war was being felt by many of Europe’s fashion
houses, as staff, including heads such as Marcel Rochas, were mobilized.
Following the success of the parades at the Centennial Exhibition, the National Patriotic Fund Board invited the Wool Council to tour the show nationally to raise funds for the war effort.[xi] While the Wool Council financed the tour, the Patriotic Fund were charged with organising the venues and publicity. Mrs Allen and her three models toured the country for three months with 50 garments, extolling the virtues of wool to audiences in over 20 cities and towns.[xii]The tour ended with a four day event, ‘Wool into Fashion’, held at Wellington’s D.I.C. Lord Galway, in his opening address stressed the importance of New Zealand’s wool exports after the war, stating that he believed ‘that the sky is bright for the future of the wool industry’.[xiii]
Following the D.I.C finale, the Wool Council decided to keep Mrs Allen on as Publicity Officer, believing that although ‘factories were working under pressure on Army orders’ that the work would ease up in four to six months and that the Wool Council should keep up with promotions over the next 12 months.[xiv] At the end of 1945, however, the now Wool Board cancelled Mrs Allen’s contract. Aware that they needed to safeguard and further the ‘position of wool and wool fabrics’ in the post-war period, the Board no longer felt that she was providing value for money.[xv]
[i]Suzette Worden, ‘Materials, trade and Empire: Australian wool research, marketing and promotion in the twentieth century’, 2008.
[ii] Julie Summers, Fashion on the Ration, London, 2015, p.40. B Carter & J McGibbon, Wool: A History of New Zealand’s Wool Industry, Ngaio Press, Wellington, 2003, p. 77.
[iii] The Wool Councils stand was number 34, in the General Exhibits Court, and was presented in association with the Department of Agriculture.
iv] WOOL COUNCIL PAVILION, Evening Post, Volume CXXIV, Issue 1, 2 January 1940.
[v] WOOL COUNCIL'S PARADES, Evening Post, Volume CXXIX, Issue 57, 7 March 1940.
[vi] WHAT WOOL CAN DO, Evening Post, Volume CXXIX, Issue 9, 11 January 1940.
[vii] FASHIONS IN WOOL, New Zealand Herald, Volume LXXVII, Issue 23701, 6 July 1940.
[viii] P. Richard (ed), Paris Says Wool, International Wool Secretariat, London, 1951, p. 14.
[ix] Dilys E Blum, Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004, p.221.
[viii] Minutes of meeting of the New Zealand Wool Council held at Wellington on 4th April 1940. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS 2004-185-1/1.
[ix] A NOVEL TOUR, Evening Post, Volume CXXIX, Issue 124, 27 May 1940. Minutes of meeting of the New Zealand Wool Council held at Wellington on 7 th August 1940. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS 2004-185-1/1.
[xiv]Minutes of meeting of the New Zealand Wool Council held at Wellington on 28th August 1940. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS 2004-185-1/1.
[xv] Minutes of meeting of the New Zealand Wool Council held at Wellington on 28th, 29th and 30th August 1945. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS 2004-185-1/1