Wedding dresses, like other types of dresses, reflect the societies that create and use them.
They can illustrate a response to changes in technology, the economy, fashions and societal changes. They are often kept as treasured mementos in wardrobes or are donated to museums.
One of the dresses that was donated to the Whanganui Regional Museum and features in our current exhibition Here Comes the Brides was worn by Maud Mary Rolston when she married Allan Cameron on April 20, 1892.
This dress reflects many of the changes that were occurring in New Zealand society at that time.
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Maude was born in Tasmania, Australia, on January 19, 1865. She was the youngest of 12 children. Her father, John Ralston, was a prosperous land owner, but by the time Maude was 15, both her parents had passed away. She went to live with one of her older brothers, John Bryce Ralston, who was sheep farming in Manawatū.
The wedding between Maude and Allan was held at the private residence of her brother in Hokianga, Carnarvon, in Manawatū.
The wedding ceremony was performed by the Reverend James Doull, a Presbyterian minister. For new migrants and the first generations of New Zealand-born Europeans, marriage had often been a practical and economic contract that was celebrated simply.
The wedding ceremony frequently took place in the bride's parents' home or the home of a friend. Allan and Maude's wedding was on the cusp of a time when church weddings were becoming the wedding venue of choice, and romantic attachment was gaining in importance when choosing a mate. Weddings were becoming a major social ritual, a display of status for all levels of society.
Maude's choice of dress also shows the changes taking place in what was worn at a wedding.
Previously, bride and groom wore their best clothes on their wedding day and these same clothes continued to be worn for best for years to come.
The tradition of wearing a white wedding dress made at home, or purchased exclusively for this single special occasion, is rooted in British upper class society and dates back to the royal family of Queen Victoria. In New Zealand this trend took hold in the late 19th century.
Maude's dress is unusual in another way in that it has a maker's label.
Most wedding dresses in the Museum collection are homemade, or made by dressmakers whose names remain unknown.
It wasn't until 1858 that the first designer started labelling his garments in Paris and the trend took some time to reach New Zealand. Department stores, such Kirkcaldie and Stains and James Smith in Wellington, were early vendors.
They had dressmaking departments employing a team to sew made-to-measure wedding dresses for their clients. Maude's dress was made at James Smiths department store. At the time, the James Smith dressmaking department was under the management of Miss Begg, who was reported in the Evening Post as having "an excellent reputation, talent, ability, and skill, combined in no ordinary degree with accuracy of fit and perfection in draping."
From examining Maude's dress, we can say that part of it is very probably missing. The low-cut front was not the fashion in 1892. The bare upper chest it would have been covered by a dickey, a type of false shirtfront that was fitted up to the neck.
The old English rhyme for bringing good luck to a wedding, "Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue", can definitely be seen in Maude's dress. Four small blue crosses have been stitched onto the waistband.
A strip of silver lace is missing from the side of the skirt. A clue about the fate of the lace is found in a newspaper report about the wedding of Maude's daughter, Barbara, which mentions silver lace on the bride's wedding hat.
•Trish Nugent-Lyne is the collection manager at the Whanganui Regional Museum.