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Campbell Descendants Join the Dots on Cherished Dress

Contributions from family members have helped to reveal the personality behind Lila Campbell’s lively wardrobe.

Whanganui Regional Museum is thrilled to have received a treasure trove of new information shedding light on the life of Lila Alice Campbell, a prominent Whanganui personality whose legacy continues to inspire generations. Museum records have been enhanced by family members coming forward following the recent display of a beloved 1970s dress owned by Lila.

Displayed for the April Outfit of the Month exhibition, the navy-blue and white polka dot sleeveless dress offers a glimpse into Lila’s vibrant personality through her choice of attire. The dress was a favourite of Lila’s and worn throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Donated to the Museum by Lila herself in 1997, the dress has become a symbol of her vivacious character.

Lila’s son, Jim, and daughter-in-law, Sue, met with Kaihāpai Taonga/Collections and Curatorial Lead, Trish Nugent-Lyne to provide invaluable insights, photographs, and anecdotes about Lila, painting a vivid picture of her remarkable life. Sue fondly recalled Lila’s passion for cars and fashion, citing her ownership of iconic American vehicles which became an integral part of her identity.

As a teacher at Rangitikei College, Lila’s unconventional yet charismatic presence left a lasting impression on students, who eagerly anticipated her daily fashion statements. Sue recalled, “She loved cars. She owned Mustangs, Camaros, and a Thunderbird. She would rock up to school in these cars and the kids used to say, ‘I wonder what Mrs Campbell is wearing today?’ and she would have long boots on, and short dresses.”

Jim reminisced about his mother’s penchant for cars, and her frequent visits to Monaco Motors in Hamilton, where she would effortlessly trade one iconic vehicle for another.

“She bought and sold about 15 or 16 American muscle cars. The big 1969 Thunderbird, that was the most incredible one. It was quite spectacular. It was like President Kennedy’s car, when the roof was folded down.”

“We lived in a farmhouse. But we didn’t really need a garage because she was never home.”

Jim said Lila often wore high-heeled shoes, even though she was already quite tall. “I remember the lace-up boots she had. They were something like what Madonna would wear. When she stepped out of the Thunderbird with those on…” The boots are also in the museum’s collection.

Jim recalls a carefree woman who shattered stereotypes with her youthful spirit and zest for life. From her love for sports to her active involvement in political campaigns, Lila’s persona entertained all who knew her. “She was a champion sportswoman. She was a representative hockey player, tennis player, table tennis, golf – very good at sports. She did have a lot of energy.”

Jim Campbell and Lila, holding the Turakina Tennis Clubs Glasgow Cup, March 1984 (Lila aged 64). Photograph courtesy of Jim and Sue Campbell

Sue said, “She was still playing hockey when she was in her seventies. At one time, she was the oldest woman to play in the Masters Games, for hockey.”

“She was also right into the New Labour Party.” Jim said.  “She used to walk miles delivering pamphlets. She was in love with Jim Anderton and had a great big picture of him up in her house in Churchill Street. She was a character.”

However, as Sue remembers, “She was not a domesticated goddess – she didn’t really like cooking much or cleaning the house or anything like that. As soon as she could, she was back playing tennis.”

“We took over the farm and she was still docking with us, in her seventies. Anything to get out of the house.”

Sue says well into her retirement, Lila had plenty going on in her life. “She was still zooming around the countryside. She sold her house in Argyle Street to do a world trip when she was in her seventies.”

Jim described an indomitable spirit that never wavered. “I never knew her to get down. If she felt unwell – which was very seldom – her philosophy was to go out and have a good hard game of tennis and sweat it out. She said it got all the toxins out of the body, and then away she went again. She never went to hospital – only to have children.”

“At 92, she had lost her eyesight which was a shame because she was a great reader, but she still had her faculties. When we went to see her, she knew who we were.”

The Outfit of the Month series invites fashion enthusiasts to indulge in the fabulous style of past eras and explore the roots of many modern-day garments. Members of the public are encouraged to share stories and knowledge of the outfits they are connected to.

Trish Nugent-Lyne, Collections and Curatorial Lead at the Whanganui Regional Museum, remarked,

“Lila Campbell’s legacy serves as a great illustration of the resolute spirit that defines our community’s rich cultural fabric. With the additional information and photographs from Jim and Sue, we can illustrate her place, and that of other progressive women, in Whanganui’s unique cultural tapestry.”

Whanganui Regional Museum extends its heartfelt gratitude to Jim and Sue Campbell for their invaluable contributions which have helped to enrich Whanganui’s social history collection.

Karen Hughes

20 May 2024

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