‘I Do’, More Than a Dress

One of the stories featured in the ‘I Do: Wedding Stories from Queensland’ exhibition is from Torres Strait Islander man, Walter Waia who was married in the Blue Mountains in Bilpin, New South Wales in 1986. Walter met his first wife, an Australian Caucasian woman while he was working for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra. They developed a relationship and decided to get married.

Photo: Walter and his first wife on their wedding day in Bilpin, New South Wales
Photo: Walter wearing his dhibal and performing traditional dance at his first wedding ceremony. Photos courtesy of Walter Waia.

Before his wedding, Walter travelled to Saibai Island for his engagement ceremony. It was a trip that allowed him to return home and go through a cultural process that prepared him for marriage.  One of the objects on display telling Walter’s story is a Dhibal ceremonial feathered headdress that Walter created for his engagement ceremony.

View inside the ‘I Do’ exhibition showing Walter’s dhibal ceremonial feathered headdress created from ostrich, peacock, rooster, and cassowary feathers and split lawyer cane. The photo also shows Walter’s brother’s headdress to the right and a small collection of objects that were given to Walter as a gift from his Ait Koedal Clan. Photo by Peter Waddington.

He tells the story of making his dhibal and completing it and requiring the final tick of approval from his father and Ait Koedal Elders. Walter’s family name is renowned in the Torres Strait for creating traditional ceremonial dance costumes, apparatus as well as choreographing ceremonial dance so this process was an important step culturally for Walter as well as the Saibai Island community.

Walter then used his dhibal to perform ceremonial dance and describes this as a game changing event, as it was the first time since the arrival of Christian missionaries on Saibai Island that traditional dance was performed in public.  Prior to this, the missionaries banned the expression of traditional culture including ceremonial dance in public spaces. Walter’s dance that he performed for his engagement ceremony in front of his father and Ait Koedal Elders was a significant event marking an historical moment of pride and joy for his community.

A photo of the game changing event when Walter wore his Dhibal headdress and performed traditional dance in front of his Ait Koedal Elders and community for his engagement ceremony on Saibai Island. Photo courtesy of Walter Waia.

Walter’s wedding story is one of a group of stories featured in the ‘I Do’ exhibition that relates to the idea of ‘home’.  The idea speaks to the process of thinking about where you come from, what you are doing and where you are going in the lead up to your wedding day.  Thinking about where you come from can tie into reflecting on your culture, identity and family, and these reflections can be expressed on a wedding day through clothing, rituals, dance, music and food and these are just to name a few.

Photo of Mr and Mrs Walter and Ritu Waia on their wedding day in 1996. Photo courtesy of Walter Waia.

The ‘I Do’ display provided an avenue for Walter to look back on his life and reflect on his wedding story. During the development of the exhibition, Walter shared his story of re-marrying later on in life. In 1996, he re-married and his wedding ceremony took place at the Cairns Botanical Gardens. He married an Indian woman and together they raised a family.

Today, Walter is proud to share both marriage stories and to have them recorded for his children and future generations of Torres Strait Islanders.

Weddings are significant milestones in many couple’s lives. They mark the legal, emotional and social union of two people in front of family, friends and community. Regardless of how weddings are recognised, celebrated or ritualised, the commitment of two people through marriage is a familiar one that most people around the world recognise and have an experience with, be it as a bride, groom, celebrant, wedding planner or a wedding guest. 

For the most part, in the Western World, when people talk about weddings, a bride’s dress is usually the first thing that comes to mind but for many people, it’s more than just a dress. Weddings are highly personal and unique events experienced differently by different people, particularly if you identify and relate with another culture, faith, sexuality or gender.

For museum curators, wedding dresses can provide a wonderful source of information about women who lived in the past, their family’s wealth, social status, identity and fashion sense. Apart from wedding rings, a bride’s wedding dress has over time, become the chosen object that is carefully stored away and kept as a memento for the future.

The history of weddings in Australia is large and layered; funnily enough like many wedding dresses however, it goes beyond this. If we look a little more carefully and deeply, we begin to see how it connects to many other histories such as migration, personal struggle and hardship, war, loss and social stigma. It also connects to the history of denying people the right to marry as well as denying people the right to marry whom they choose or love. The history of First Nations people in Australia and the suppression of Indigenous traditional culture is one that also comes to the fore.

The inclusion of wedding stories from culturally diverse Queenslanders was integral to the curatorial vision of the ‘I Do’ exhibition. By embracing values of diversity, inclusion, equality and meaningful engagement with community, the exhibition features a range of wedding stories that many people may not expect to find in a wedding dress display.

The inclusion of wedding stories from First Nations people are without a doubt, some of the exhibition’s major highlights, allowing visitors to understand how weddings, in so many ways, connect to the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture and the suppression of traditional marriage practices.

Written by Assistant Curator, Queensland Stories, Carmen Burton