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'The very useful dress' was worn by five brides who got married during wartime

Couples planning a wartime wedding had to be inventive, as silk was used for parachutes and not available for wedding dresses.

'The very useful dress' was worn by five brides who got married during wartime
Cover Image Source: Twitter/@abcnews

Wartime brings extreme financial, emotional and economical distress to people caught in the middle. But everyday life has to continue on, and that includes life events such as births, marriages and funerals. Couples wanting to tie the knot in wartimes of the past had to get creative, according to Anne Tyson of the Merrigum Historical Society. Tyson told ABC News Australia, "Due to wartime exigency, fabric was rationed, many things were rationed, silk was used for parachutes — [and] not available for wedding dresses."

When Australian bride Lillian Judd packed away her wedding dress in April 1939, after marrying her sweetheart Cecil, the son of a local shopkeeper, she had no idea that the silky, satin gown with orange flower needlework would become the central feature of four additional weddings. Just months after the Judds married, Australia entered World War II and life in the Judds' little town of Merrigum in northern Victoria began to change.



Lillian Judd first lent her dress to Sylvia Timmins for her wedding to Eric Andrews, a local Methodist Sunday school teacher, and by 1945, five brides had worn it, including Anne Tyson's own mother, Nancy Pitts, when she married Horrie Tyson. "I simply don't know how the same dress went on all of these women, they were all very different shapes," Tyson said. Nancy was "a good six inches taller" than the original owner of the outfit, according to Tyson, but she insisted it fit her perfectly.



In 1942, the couple had only three days to celebrate their marriage. Horrie hurried to Merrigum while on leave from the navy to marry Nancy. "Family brought up flowers and cakes from Melbourne, they had the wedding very quickly, borrowing the dress — they had a day and a bit to honeymoon in Sydney," Tyson said. "Then my mother said goodbye and off he went." The couple went on to have four children, including Anne, when her father came back from the war.

The frail gown known as "the very useful dress" is currently on display at Merrigum Museum, where the local historical society conducts a wedding-dress exhibition every 10 years. After a handful of outfits were given to the museum, society secretary Flo Halliday had the idea to organize a display in 2002.

"It started with a few Merrigum people," Halliday said. "We've collected quite a range over the years, quite a few modern dresses, others dating back to the 19th century."



"I think it's fascinating … it makes a dress more interesting when you know a little bit about the people who wore it and where they got married," she said. Halliday recalled how the local newspaper used to print extensive reportage of local marriages, which the historical society gathered.

Changing fashions reflected the passage of time and bridal trends, and Tyson believes one of the collection's voluminous taffeta gowns belonged to a Princess Diana lover. Two-piece silk-and-brocade ensembles in neutral colors provide a peek at late-nineteenth-century bridal celebrations.

One on loan from the Echuca Historical Society belonged to Ellen McNamara, who married Finland-born August Anderson in 1883. The Andersons were "river people" who worked on Murray's banks and raised six children. Two donated gowns belonged to a Melbourne mother and daughter, and they were accompanied by keepsakes from their wedding days in 1912 and 1952, respectively.



"We've got the wedding certificates of each, we've got the wedding photos of each, and lots of other things — cards, telegrams, horseshoes — and the husband of the 1912 wedding, we've got his bow tie," Tyson said. "It's interesting that she [the daughter] wore a blue dress in 1952, and lace seemed to be current after the war. I think people wanted prettiness, and I found from '45 onwards lace dresses were very popular."

Although Tyson shared that she was not of an era that valued marriage, she understood the value of preserving items from the past. Nancy, her mother, felt the same way. "My mother wasn't actually a sentimental woman, but she kept the confetti and cake ornament," Tyson said. 

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