Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 7]: I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland with Carmen Burton

Love is in the air at QM. To discuss all the love stories from our latest exhibition I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland join our Assistant Curator of Social History, Carmen Burton, for episode 7 of the Museum Revealed podcast.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Let’s meet our guest: Carmen Burton

Carmen has worked in the museum industry since 2004 and has been involved in many small and large scale displays, exhibitions, public programs and community engagement projects. Some of this work has covered controversial and sensitive topics relating to radical politics, mental illness, sexuality, female migrant experiences in the clothing and textile manufacturing industry and religion and spirituality. In order to explore these topics, Carmen worked alongside artists, photographers and film producers to create contemporary works that capture and document community stories. Learn more about Carmen here.

I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland – On now until 21 February 2021

I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland will present wedding garments, accessories and stories through a series of themes, revealing stories of evolving fashion, changing cultural traditions, heartbreaking circumstances and what it truly means to love. 

The exhibition has been curated exclusively by Queensland Museum, showcasing never before displayed pieces from the State Collection, generous loans of personal items from Queenslanders and commissioned artwork.
Spanning more than 180 years of wedding traditions – I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland will explore how some of these traditions have remained the same, how others have changed and how the union of two people in marriage has looked different depending on cultural backgrounds, economic conditions, location and legislation. 

Learn more and book now.

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RB: Welcome to the Museum Revealed podcast brought to you by the Queensland Museum Network, join me, Dr. Rob Bell, as we chat to the people that make the museum so fascinating, from curators to scientists and researchers, dive deep into conversations with these storytellers that inspire us to be curious about our past, make sense of the present and help us consider our future. And today, we are joined by Carmen Burton, who is helping to put together a new exhibition. I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland. So, come on, how do you decide what sorts of things go into an exhibition like this one?

CB: Yes, that’s a really good question. I’d say it’s a real process working out how you decide. In this case, for the exhibition, we started with looking at the what dresses in the museum collection we have and we have about 30 wedding dresses which span a whole range of different time periods. So in order to decide, we needed to get them out and look at them, which is a quite a lengthy process.

RB: So they are always storage somewhere there..

CB: Oh, yes. Yes, they are all in storage at Southbank. And that requires us to put them onto mannequins. So every week the team would get together and we’d pull out, you know, five, five to ten wedding dresses with the conservator, put them on mannequins. We’d all take photos. We talk about them. We’d look at what information we have on hand, what the stories were with each of them. We particularly look at the condition of each of the dresses. And I’d say looking at the condition was one of the big factors for us in deciding whether we could put it on display or not. I guess with each dress, depending on what condition it is in, depends on how much treatment is required. And that requires money to treat the dress. So with a lot of our 19th century wedding garments, unfortunately, we were unable to put a lot of them on display because of that reason.  What is in the exhibition were some of the dresses that were more easily conserved, let’s say.

RB: So you were saying something about, what, 19th century? What sort of a timescale are we sort of covering here in the exhibition?

CB: Yeah, well, we are starting with 1840, actually. That’s our earliest wedding dress and that dress was worn by a Quaker woman who was married in Van Diemen’s Land in Tasmania. Their marriage which was the first Quaker wedding that took place on Van Diemen’s Land in 1840. And the man that she married, George Washington Walker, was one of the first Quaker missionaries to come to Australia. We’re really lucky to have the dress. One thing people often question is how the dress came to Queensland.

RB: I was thinking a great question.

CB: Well, they had they had a lot of children and some of their descendants moved to Queensland and donated the dress to the Queensland Museum.

RB: Okay, fantastic. And so what does a Quaker wedding dress look like? Would you look at it and would anyone say, God, that’s clearly a wedding dress?

CB: No, actually. Well, Quakers believe in living very simply.

RB: That’s what I thought. I know wedding dress is sort of the epitome of opulence, generally speaking. So I was wondering how those two went together.

CB: Yeah, well, it’s no, you couldn’t tell it was a wedding dress. We think that it may have been her day dress and she wore it as a wedding dress. The family have said that they believe this is the dress she wore on her wedding day. So it’s very plain. It’s a sort of a grey sort of green colour and full length covers her up to her neck, full to the floor and is not decorative. There’s no adornment on it or anything. It’s very plain which ties into the belief about living a simple life.

RB: So very modest and very humble. So tell me. I guess when most people, myself included, think of a wedding dress, generally we’re thinking something fairly expensive or fairly lavish, at least as much as the person might be able to afford it, and almost always white. Is that reflected across a lot of the dresses or do you see the evolution of these things?

CB:. They aren’t all white dresses. No. And in the past, prior to the Victorian period, women didn’t wear white depending on what class in society you were part of. You could have worn silver, you could have worn a pale pink or a like a pale blue, or if you were a woman who didn’t come from a very affluent background, then you your only choice may have been to just wear your best dress, your best day dress, whatever it might be. Yes. Whatever that might have been. But it’s only recently that. Well, from Queen Victoria’s time when she when she wore a white wedding dress.

RB: So that’s where the modern sort of idea of a wedding dress, if you like. At least in I’m sure it’s a sort of Western Culture.

CB:. In Western culture, complete with the veil and orange blossoms and a train they complete. Yes. White wedding dress. Sort of took some. Yes. Was an interest for people then.

RB: So you’ve got, I guess, wedding dresses. Not just from Western culture. Then you must have a bit of a span there in the collection. Can you give me another example? I suppose we’ve heard about the Quaker wedding dress, also the oldest bit of another cultural wedding dress, I suppose, that you might have in the collection.

CB: Yeah, well, we have a beautiful Chinese, a traditional Chinese two piece wedding gown, sort of reluctant to say the name, which consists of. It’s a top and a long skirt. And this dress belonged to a Chinese woman who was born in Queensland in around 1912. And she was married to a man in Hong Kong in the 1930s. So this was one of the dresses she wore for her wedding day. It was, I think, the outfit that she wore to the evening reception. She was married in an Anglican church in Hong Kong in the 1930s, and she actually wore a white Western wedding gown for her church ceremony. And we have a beautiful picture of her in it. She looks absolutely stunning. And we also luckily have a photo of her in the in her traditional Chinese wedding costume.

RB: So she sort of had the dualweddings that in a way, in the traditional and her traditional wedding dress. I mean, what is the more Western?

CB: Yes. Well, she did. And she could have had. She could have worn other dresses, too, because I believe in traditional Chinese culture, particularly in the South and particularly in Hong Kong, you can have multiple changes in dresses. And for the bride’s family that were that is as a show of wealth.

RB: So with all of the wedding dresses, how many in total are in the collection together? The I do.

CB We have about 40 wedding dresses, wedding, I should say, they are not all dressed well. And that doesn’t include objects. We also have some men’s suits. We felt it was really important to have men’s stories represented in this exhibition because quite often I think we say wedding dress exhibitions and it’s easy to forget that men are part of the story. And with the recent change in legislation that has allowed same sex couples to marry, you know, like this is we really need to start thinking about things this way.

RB: Yeah. And then, as you said, even you don’t have to look very far back. And what we think of as a wedding was very different back then. You don’t have to go very far to different cultures and suddenly things change. So, yeah, it’s really interesting to see that that breadth of it all, I suppose. Are there any other artefacts or other things in the collection from weddings? Have you got any other things that people have had with them at a wedding? I’m thinking people often preserve the flowers or things like that.

CB: We do. We have there’s a small section about wedding gifts that we were really excited about exploring. A museum collection is our social history collection. We have quite an eclectic collection of wedding gifts and we just wanted to pull them out and look at that story of the importance of giving a gift and what kind of gifts people gave and what that meant. For example, there’s a beautiful wooden bride’s trousseau chest and a set of silver cutlery.

RB: Okay. Neither of which seem particularly or sound like the sort of wedding presents you’d get these days. What’s a rousseau? So I should probably ask that because I don’t know.

CB: So a trousseau is a collection of items that are bride would have been collected for herself. Before she was married.

RB: So like a pre marriage wedding chests, a treasure chest of bits and pieces of her past, that sort of thing.

CB: No, not one of her past. They’d be things that would go into her new house, bridal cloths.

RB: So I guess the contemporary wedding presence would probably be quite different because of the nature of weddings these days.

CB: Yes, I imagine they would be. I think people would even skip giving gifts and give vouchers. Vouchers.

RB: Here’s your voucher for the local shops. We’re going to pick up on contemporary weddings a little bit more when we come back. So join us for that shortly. Welcome back to the Museum Revealed podcast. And we are currently with Carmen Burton, who’s been helping put together this.

I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland exhibition. We started talking a little bit about contemporary weddings and this sort of presence you wouldn’t give. I’m also interested with respect to contemporary weddings. Did you have any contemporary wedding dresses already in the collection or did you have to go and find some?

CB: Well, we actually did have to go out and find some because our collection currently only goes to, well, it did go to around the 1970s or 80s, mark, but we recently acquired two suits that belong to a same sex couple who were the first in Queensland to marry following the change to legislation. So they were probably the only contemporary wedding story that we had. So there was this huge gap and we needed to fill it. So we went out looking for fantastic wedding stories and fantastic wedding gowns.

RB: Excellent. So when you go out looking for wedding gowns, I look, I imagine these are the sorts of things that people keep, number one, but also probably treasure number two. So were they easy to have donated.

CB: They were actually weren’t donated. Some of them are on loan to us. And, you know, there’s some of them were made by Queensland designers. Others just have fantastic stories, which we just couldn’t pass up.

RB: It’s one thing to look at and marvel at the outfit, whether it be the two suits or the wedding dresses. But I suppose it’s the stories behind them that sort of really bring it all to life. Have you got a particular well, whether it’s a favourite dress or a favourite story or one of each in the collection?

CB: Yeah, it’s hard to say. Because they’re all really fantastic and they’re all represent different parts of history and are so significant in their own ways. But if I did have to pick what you do for the purpose for this question, it’s not actually even a dress. Yeah, it’s a collection of objects that was recently donated to the museum by a man called Walter Waia, and he’s a Torres Strait Islander man. These objects were given to him as gifts for his wedding ceremony in 1986. And I just love what each of them means. So there’s a pair of warrior clubs, there’s a digging stick, and there’s a straw mat, all objects you would not expect to see in a wedding exhibition. But you know, this this is a story. This is a man’s wedding story. And this is also about Torres Strait Islander traditional culture and practise. So Walter is from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. And his clan, the eight Cardale clan, an ancient clan, gave these gifts to him. And each of them best embodies a certain kind of meaning. So the pair of warrior clubs represent the challenges that lay ahead. The digging stick is about responsibility. And it’s about, you know, now that you’re a man and you’re getting married and you’re going to have a family, you need to be responsible. You need to look after them. But the straw mat is about birth, life and death. So I recall Walter saying that in his culture, they say you are born on the straw mat. You sit on the straw mat, you live on it, and you die on the straw mat. So I just love the meaning with those objects. And I think there’s a real important message in there for people today. I think it’s a really relevant message today in terms of, you know, when we think about wedding stories.

RB: And do you have I mean, I think it’s fascinating, for starters, that you’ve got something from the Torres Strait Islands and it’s the man, the side of the wedding that you bring along. Getting back to, I guess, what everyone maybe thinks of more in the wedding dresses. Do you have a favourite wedding dress across the entire collection? Again, even if it’s just something to behold? Not necessarily you wear yourself, but something of a whole as a as a piece of art, I suppose, or a piece of fashion.

CB: Oh, there are many. There are many. There’s a gorgeous 1930s wedding dress that was made by a Queensland costumer who was located in Brisbane. And one of the other wedding dresses that I absolutely love and I think is a gorgeous design is a dress from the 1950s that was also designed in Queensland, in Brisbane by a company called United Fashions. And they operated traded solely under the name Marcia Mayne. And I think a lot of people may recognise that label or I’ve seen it out there. Now, this company was owned and managed by a Lebanese family in Queensland. The Maloof family. And I just think it’s so symbolic of its time. The shape is really vindictive of, you know, that new look that Christian Dior had brought out at the time with the cinched in waist and the full beautiful big skirt. It’s I think it’s really unique.

RB: So. So to a degree, I guess I’m wandering through the exhibition, is it is it arranged chronologially? So do you sort of start with the early wedding dresses and end of more contemporary? Is it also a journey through the fashion of the time?

CB: Well, that was so that was one of the things that came out when we did our mannequin trials and we looked at all of the dresses was to figure out how are we going to tell this story? And we kind of didn’t want to go down the evolution of wedding dresses line. We really wanted to do a thematic approach. So we came up with the five themes, one of which is love. And then we look at rites rights and rituals. We’ve got a section called Home, a section on tradition which you would expect to find in a wedding exhibition and one on circumstances.

RB: So with the fashion of the time you mentioned the cinched in waist, do you notice when you look through the different periods, though, that they are often reflective of the fashion of the time? Do you notice veils come and go, tulle comes and go, beading comes and goes. Is there a bit of a they always say fashion comes around again, right. Do you notice that with the wedding dresses as well?

CB: Yes, they are. All of their time, I think. And you do see the veils come and go, the lengths go up and down, the colours change. The types of fabric used. Yeah, you really do. I think well, there’s an interesting part in the display that looks at the 1960s and 1970s period when things started to really change and people started to reject the social convention. So it’s great to see these dresses. They’re actually displayed together and you get to see what kinds of things women were doing to express themselves, even though, you know, the dresses are still white. But they were they were experimenting with how they wanted to be seen in the world.

RB: But so there is that there’s a breaking free from tradition, but still within the tradition.

CB: Yeah, it’s really interesting time.

RB: Look, there’s hopefully we’ve whet your appetite for having a look at this wedding stories for Queensland. I Do. You can come and see it yourself at the Queensland Museum. So I think up until the 21st of February 2021. So there’s heaps there to have a look at. Carmen, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been fascinating. Remember the Museum Reveal podcasts. Every episode, join me as we cover something new. If you’d like to learn even more, then follow the Queensland Museum on Social Media @qldmuseum or head to our website qm.qld.gov.au and while you are there sign up for the E news list. So you get updated on absolutely everything and there are show notes to go along with this podcast.

So you’ll actually be able see some of the things that we’ve been sharing about today and until next time. Stay curious.

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