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Canberra’s First Lady of Fashion

The Stylish Life of Zara Holt

By Sita Sargeant, Founder of She Shapes History.

It's 1966, and Harold Holt has just been elected as Australia's 17th Prime Minister, succeeding the long-reigning Robert Menzies. Although Harold and his wife Zara moved to Canberra shortly after his election, they didn’t move into The Lodge for over two months.

During this time, they resided at Hotel Canberra, now the Hyatt, while Zara transformed The Lodge, a government building that had undergone minimal changes in the past forty years, into an extravagant display of contemporary style that reflected her vibrant, globe-trotting personality.

Zara was, as a newspaper in 1966 described, "attractive, plump, gay, and laughing, with great warmth and vitality." As a short and larger woman, with a figure she described as “impossible” to dress, Zara felt she had no choice but to enter fashion design. So, at 18, and with £150 borrowed from her father, Zara and a friend opened a dress shop on Little Collins Street, Melbourne. Her mother later forcibly closed the shop because she considered her energetic daughter was spending too much time working on it.

Zara Holt, a formidable woman ahead of her times.

After selling the shop, Zara tried to convince Harold, whom she had met at 16, to marry her. Harold, however, felt he did not have sufficient funds to do so. Unable to convince him otherwise, Zara spent all her profits from the shop on a round-the-world cruise to England. On her travels, she met and married James Fell, a British army officer, and they lived in India for four years. During this time, she had a child with James, and a few years later, she gave birth to twins. She and James then amicably divorced in 1946.

That same year, Zara married Harold, now a member of the House of Representatives. With her new husband spending time in Canberra as a Member of Parliament, and her children at school, she opened another dress boutique, Magg, in Toorak Village. Magg was so popular that she opened a second location in Double Bay, Sydney, and at Melbourne’s Myer Emporium. In 1961, a Magg evening dress was voted 'Gown of the Year.' Zara had become a well-known business owner and fashion advisor, and at this point in her marriage to Harold, one could even argue that she was the more influential and well-known of the two.  

When Harold became Prime Minister, Zara was no wallflower. She was, as the Australian Women’s Weekly described, an “elegant and vivacious complement to her silver-haired, distinguished husband, Harold, the lawyer-politician who was formerly Federal Treasurer.” 

Zara was a confident and outspoken woman of style who knew what she wanted and how to make it happen.  One thing she did not want was to move into the Lodge in its existing state at the beginning of 1966. Being a woman of action, she decided to do something about it while temporarily based at the Hotel Canberra. From the moment Zara knew they would be moving into The Lodge, she focused on refurbishing the entrance foyer and the adjoining dining and sitting rooms. She described colour as her main ally. Under her direction, the entire space was transformed within just two months. They needed to achieve these changes in such a short period because Zara and Harold were due to host the Queen Mother and Prince Charles for a Sunday lunch at The Lodge, and it needed to be perfect.

Just in time, Zara Holt worked around the clock to have The Lodge refurbishment complete for a royal visit. Pictured here with Prime Minister, Harold Holt, The Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the then Prince Charles. ©Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2024.


Despite the time crunch, the makeover was extensive. It was a genuine testament to the energy of Zara and her staff. The old curtains and carpets were replaced with emerald green flooring and crisp white drapes. A flagpole flying the Australian flag was installed on the staircase landing to mark The Lodge as the residence of a head of government. The dark, varnished Tasmanian mountain ash panelling was stripped back and painted over with glossy white, setting a bright and modern backdrop for formal photographs at The Lodge for the next five prime ministers – her influence could be felt in photos for years to come.


"Redecorating The Lodge was interesting and it was fun, although it was a great deal of work. For the bedroom, I chose a bright shocking pink Schiaparelli silk wallpaper and a white glazed ceiling," reflected Zara Holt.


Zara's extensive renovations over those two months proved to be just the first stage of a remarkable transformation that eventually included interior reconstruction upstairs and downstairs.


The first stage of Zara's incredible transformation of the Lodge was celebrated with a Women’s Weekly picture spread, bringing The Lodge vividly into the public eye in ways it hadn’t previously been presented. Zara played a key role in positioning The Lodge as a central theatre in Australian political and social life, repositioning The Lodge firmly on the landscape of Australian politics.


Zara Holt was a woman of style and substance, truly ahead of her time. An entrepreneur with an eye for detail, her impact on Australia was as significant as her husband's, and certainly more colourful. And while her stay at Hotel Canberra was short, it is perhaps a testament to the hotel that a style icon such as Zara was pleased to call it home.


If you would like to know more about the political underbelly of the Capital and the intriguing way women have shaped history, She Shapes History runs weekly tours. Visit sheshapeshistory.com.au