Collection Stories

‘Very Grace Kelly’

Merle HIggie had an extensive and elegant wardrobe.

Merle Higgie’s stylish evening dress is made of a lilac net fabric over lilac synthetic satin. It has a boned bodice with stiffening interfacing. With two narrow shoulder straps, the very full skirt has fabric flowers stitched from the waist down and a long net floating scarf attached to the right shoulder strap.

The dress was worn by Merle, of Home Farm in Denlair Road, to a Wanganui Girls College ball in Fordell Hall in 1958. A photograph taken at the time shows Merle, tall, slim and elegant in her dress, along with other members of the ball committee, all presumably, Girls College ‘old girls’. The ball may have been a WGC old girls fund raiser.

When Dell Higgie, one of Merle’s daughters, showed her younger sister Janis the photograph, Janis was moved to say, ‘Very Grace Kelly’. While it is homemade, it still has the era’s design and glamour; the swirling skirt alone has a circumference of eight metres of fabric. And Janis captures the spirit of the era with her comment.

The dress was not made by Merle. Dell Higgie says that her mother embroidered and crotcheted, but never knitted or sewed, so a friend may have made it for her. Merle always dressed up. She had an extensive and elegant wardrobe, some of which she donated to the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1995. Her collection includes a brown rabbit fur coat, brightly coloured day dresses and more evening dresses, including a bright orange brocade from 1965, an electric blue lurex from 1970 and a tangerine chiffon, also from the 1970s. And there are her gloves – green, cream, olive, brown, white – Merle had gloves to match her outfits. Dell said she never left the farm without looking immaculate and smart.

Merle, née Richardson, married Malcolm (Mack) Higgie in 1950 at St Pauls Presbyterian Church in Whanganui. The couple had four children and farmed at Fordell. Merle led a busy life on the farm and tending her children. But she always found time to be deeply involved in her community. Merle’s school connections were strong, as evidenced by work on the ball committee. A former pupil of Wanganui Girls College, her daughters also attended WGC and boarded there. Merle was also a dedicated gardener.

One of her great loves was music. She was an accomplished pianist and held a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music. She attended St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Fordell and played the organ for services.

Merle passed away in Fordell in November 2015 and leaves a legacy in her stylish collection in the museum and in the memories of her family and community of her energy and talents.

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

Image: Merle Higgie’s lilac evening dress
Photographed by Kathy Greensides
WRM 1995.60.8 

View the full-length image.

Karen Hughes

1 September 2022

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