Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Holt, Dame Zara Kate (1909–1989)

by P. A. Pemberton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Dame Zara Kate Holt (1909-1989), fashion designer and businesswoman, was born on 10 March 1909 at Kew, Melbourne, younger daughter and second of four children of Victorian-born Sydney Herbert Dickins, merchant, and his wife Violet, née MacDonald, from Scotland. She was educated at home before attending Ruyton Girls’ School, Kew (1919-24), and Toorak College (1925). When she was 16 she met Harold Holt, then a law student at the University of Melbourne.

In 1930, in the depths of the Depression, Zara Dickins borrowed £150 from her father and established a dress shop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne, with her friend Betty (Bettine) James. Two years later, Betty having left to marry (Sir) Roy Grounds, Zara sold the business. Unable to persuade the ambitious but impecunious Holt to marry before he had sufficient funds, she departed on a round-the-world cruise to England. On the return voyage she met James Heywood Fell, a British army officer serving with the 15th Lancers. She married him with Congregational forms on 4 May 1935 at Kew. For the next four years they lived at Jubbulpore (Jabalpur) and Meerut in India, Zara returning to Melbourne for visits and for the births of her three sons. After the birth in 1939 of the second and third, twin boys and probably Holt’s sons, she remained in Melbourne. The Fells were amicably divorced in 1946.

During World War II Zara Fell worked with her father’s food packaging business, Trading & Agency Co., designing display boxes and plastic wraps. On 8 October 1946 at Toorak she married Holt, now a solicitor and member of the House of Representatives. Her husband frequently away in Canberra and her sons at school, she opened a boutique, Magg, in Toorak Village with Betty Grounds. By her own admission she could neither cut nor sew, but she was creative and could manage people. After postwar austerities, the extravagant handmade evening dresses at which Magg excelled were very popular. Another Magg shop was opened at Double Bay, Sydney, and a Magg boutique in the Myer Emporium Ltd, Melbourne. In 1961 a Magg evening dress was voted `Gown of the Year’, and in 1962 Miss Australia, Tania Verstak, wore a Magg gown in the Miss International contest, which she won. Zara Holt also advised on Australian uniforms for events such as Expo ‘67 in Montreal and the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968.

On her return from overseas trips with her husband (deputy-leader in the Menzies government from 1956 and treasurer from 1958), Mrs Holt was in demand as a speaker on overseas fashion trends. She rarely spoke on political matters or visited Canberra, dividing her time between her home in St George’s Road, Toorak, their house at Portsea and `the shack’ at Bingil Bay, North Queensland.

In January 1966 Harold Holt became Australia’s seventeenth prime minister. As chatelaine of the Lodge, Canberra, Zara was noted for her dramatic refurbishments and her energetic role as hostess. She was at the Lodge when her husband disappeared at Cheviot Beach, Victoria, on 17 December 1967. Following his memorial service in Melbourne she left in January 1968 for a two-month trip, during which she attended another memorial service, at Westminster Abbey, London, lunched with Queen Elizabeth II at Sandringham, and stayed with President Lyndon Johnson and his wife at the White House, Washington. She was appointed DBE in 1968. Her autobiography, My Life and Harry (1968), was launched by Sir Henry Bolte.

On 19 February 1969 at Toorak Zara married the flamboyant federal politician Henry Jefferson Percival Bate (d.1984). She continued to live in Melbourne and regularly visited Bate’s houses at Tilba Tilba, New South Wales. Although she sold Magg in 1976 she retained an interest in designing. In 1979 she was appointed chairman of the Yves St Laurent Board in Melbourne. Next year she retired to Surfers Paradise, Queensland. She re-emerged into public view briefly in January 1985 to comment on a television program that had raised the question of Harold Holt’s infidelities—which she acknowledged but had chosen to ignore.

Short (5 ft 2 ins or 158 cm) and plump, Zara Bate claimed that her `impossible figure’ had inspired her interest in fashion. Portrayed as `zany’ or `daffy’, she was a gift to the press, but her ebullient exterior hid an astute and successful business brain. Dame Zara died on 14 June 1989 at Surfers Paradise and was buried in Sorrento cemetery, Victoria. She was survived by her three sons, who had taken the name Holt in 1957. Her estate was sworn for probate at $5,173,165.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Langmore, Prime Ministers’ Wives (1992)
  • P. Pemberton, Harold Holt: Guide to Archives of Australia’s Prime Ministers (2003)
  • Bulletin, 2 Sept 1967, p 30
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 June 1989, p 4
  • Holt papers (National Archives of Australia and National Library of Australia).

Citation details

P. A. Pemberton, 'Holt, Dame Zara Kate (1909–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holt-dame-zara-kate-12652/text22799, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dickins, Zara
  • Fell, Zara
  • Bate, Zara
Birth

10 March 1909
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

14 June 1989
Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation