Collection Stories

Shipboard Style

Patricia Forsyth’s dancing ensemble was made for social events on board the passenger liner RMS Rangitiki.

This lovely outfit was worn by Patricia Forsyth in 1953 for shipboard dances while on a voyage to England on RMS Rangitiki. It consists of a halter neck full-skirted dress and a short jacket with a mandarin collar. The outfit is made of pale pink cotton chintz with seersucker swathes and an all-over gold paint-effect dot-and-stripe effect.

The outfit is light, pretty and graceful and would have been ideal for social events on board. It is homemade, very competently and neatly sewn, and probably made by Patricia herself – she was a talented dressmaker.

When Patricia donated the outfit to the museum in 1998, she also donated other clothing belonging to herself and her daughter that she had made. Besides her dressmaking ability, she was also a skilled embroiderer, evident from the decorative work on several dresses.

Patricia Forsyth’s name is on the passenger list of the Rangitiki, sailing from Auckland and arriving in Southampton in England on 2 September 1953. The Rangitiki was a passenger liner, launched in 1929 and owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company, sailing between England and New Zealand via the Panama Canal. She served as a troop ship during World War II and returned to her former role in 1948, sailing in that capacity until 1962.

The voyage took about five weeks and passengers enjoyed a range of entertainments and special dinners and dressed up for them. Many long-lasting friendships were struck up between passengers on these voyages.

Patricia probably learned her needlework skills from her mother, like many other New Zealand women of her era. Within her collection is a pink organdie evening dress with embroidered flowers on the sash and skirt, made by her mother in 1944 when Patricia would have been about 20 years old, beautifully made. Patricia didn’t limit her sewing to everyday wear but also tackled formal evening gowns and smart cocktail dresses.

Home sewing was a way to get what you wanted to wear when you couldn’t afford it or what you wanted just wasn’t available. Writer and commentator on architecture and design, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, wrote in The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940 (2010), “It is a defining characteristic of mid-century New Zealand that most women could sew and large numbers did so very skilfully”. Amongst them was Patricia Forsyth.

Patricia Free married David Forsyth in 1948 and the couple had two children. In 1970 she inherited the historic house ‘Beccles’ in Bulls, from her godmother, Pattie Levett, and lived there until 1998, when she moved to Waiheke Island.

By Libby Sharpe, Pou Tiaki/Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Image: Shipboard dancing dress made for a voyage to England in 1953 by Patricia Forsyth.
Photographed by Kathy Greensides
WRM 1998.45.24

View the full-length image.

Karen Hughes

1 March 2023

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