Maud Barrell & Fascinator Frocks
1902-1974 (Maud Barrell)
Many young women studied dressmaking at Druleigh College but most graduates worked as machinists until they married, or took on cutting work to make extra money for the household. But that wasn’t the intention of Maud Barrell. After she left Druleigh, she and her husband saved enough to buy their own business which they renamed Fascinator Frocks.
Maud Ann Elliott was born in London on 22 May 1902. Her family sailed to New Zealand when she was five, settling first in Christchurch and then in Auckland. With a largely absent father, Maud was only able to attend Newmarket School until she was about 12. She needed to contribute to the household income.
Maud worked in a number of places after she left school - including operating machinery at a printing company and at soft goods business Mackay Logan and Caldwell.
When she was 21, Maud married James (Jim) MacDonald Barrell. They lived near Khyber Pass until they built a house in Grey Lynn in 1928. Their first purchase for the new house was a piano. Maud was an accomplished pianist and they had a small three-piece band. Jim played the flute, clarinet and saxophone. Maud also played the side drum in the Auckland Girls’ Marching Band.
Maud learnt dressmaking at Druleigh College in Anzac Avenue before she was employed by Flora MacKenzie to work at Ninette Gowns. The salon was located in the Hallensteins Building on Queen Street.
The Barrells were lucky during the depression years. Jim owned a business transporting milk for town supply and Maud continued to work in the fashion trade.
Maud was fiercely independent. In 1936 she bought an Austin 10 saloon car and drove her husband Jim and her brothers George and Tim to Rotorua for a short holiday.
About this time, Maud started to work for Paramount Frocks, which had been started in 1935 by three members of the Crosby extended family. Maud and Jim’s only daughter Beverley was born in 1941. By then Maud had been working at Paramount for five years and, as a successful professional fashion designer, she was only at home with Beverley for a few weeks before she returned to work.
Maud worked long hours so Jim played a large role in raising Beverley, meeting her after school, cooking and also cleaning with the help of housekeepers. When Beverley was a toddler, Jim reluctantly sold his taxi business using the capital to buy Paramount Frocks, later changing the name to Fascinator Frocks.
The business remained at 19 Cook Street. Fascinator Frocks occupied the entire first floor. There was a bright, luxurious showroom and a large workroom. The office and staff lunchroom was a pleasant and sunny space with big north-facing windows.
They employed a number of staff including her half brother Syd Windsor who was a trained cutter, sample machinist Peggy Green and Jean Napier who worked in the office and despatch. George Dowling was the secretary/accountant.
In the late 1940s Maud opened a specialist bridal shop on the first floor of the Queens Arcade in Auckland. But the venture was not a financial success and the shop, Ann Elliott, closed after a short time.
In 1950, Maud entered a dress in the 'evening frock' category of the Industrial Jubilee Exhibition in Wellington. Her entry for Fascinator Frocks - a heavy reversible satin gown with slim skirt and panniered overskirt - won a gold medallion. After a parade of the entries, the awards were presented to the winners by J H Manning of the Wellington Manufacturers’ Association.
Following her win, Maud was asked to design a nylon evening dress to be exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Her design - along with designers like Worth, Lanvin, Father and Digby Morton - was included in a show held in the showrooms of the West Cumberland Silk Mills in London. The show illustrated the advancement of this 'wonder fabric' in the fashion world. The Fascinator Frocks gown was a blue nylon checknyl with a close fitting bodice and a full skirt.
Maud and Jim closed Fascinator Frocks in 1955, exhausted after more than a decade of running a wholesale business. Maud was keen to try retail so they purchased Ascot Gowns, which sold wedding dresses and eveningwear. They changed the name to Ascot Coats and Casuals. To begin with, some of the Fascinator Frocks machinists worked above the shop in Wellesley Street but this didn’t last long - the machines were too noisy to be sited above a retail store.
Maud retired in 1964. Her marriage to Jim was dissolved in 1970. Later that year she married Philip Tenison Smith and they had four happy years together. After several small strokes, Maud died in 1974.
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of Maud Barrell's daughter Beverley pictured with the Fascinator Frocks staff at a social event, circa 1950. Image © Beverley Ann White.
Last published February 2017.