Merrigum’s ‘very useful dress’ graced five wartime weddings

When Lillian Judd packed away her wedding dress after marrying her sweetheart Cecil, the local shopkeeper’s son, in April 1939, she didn’t have an inkling that the slinky, satin gown with orange blossom embroidery would be the focal point of four more weddings. 

Australia entered World War II just months after the Judds married, and life in their tiny home town of Merrigum in northern Victoria began to change. 

Couples planning a wartime wedding had to get creative, as Anne Tyson of the Merrigum Historical Society recalled. 

“Due to wartime exigency, fabric was rationed, many things were rationed, silk was used for parachutes — [and] not available for wedding dresses,” Ms Tyson said.

Every wedding dress in the historical society’s collection tells a story, but this gown tells five.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

So when the local Methodist Sunday school teacher Eric Andrews married Sylvia Timmins, Lillian Judd generously loaned the bride-to-be her dress. 

Sadly Eric died soon after of war injuries.

The story of the dress didn’t stop there and by 1945, five brides had taken a turn wearing the understated gown, including Ms Tyson’s 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,” Ms Tyson said. 

A woman stands with her back to the camera arranging objects on a table, surrounded by wedding dresses on mannequins. Once every 10 years the Merrigum Historical Society displays its wedding-dress collection.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

Nancy was “a good six inches taller” than the true owner of the dress, by Ms Tyson’s estimate, but she said it suited her down to the ground. 

The happy couple had just three days to celebrate their nuptials in 1942. 

Horrie had rushed to Merrigum to marry Nancy while on leave from the navy. 

A pair of hands are shown holding a framed sepia photo of a bride and groom, the groom wearing naval uniform. Nancy Pitts took a turn wearing the dress at her wedding to Horrie Tyson in 1942. (ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

“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,” Ms Tyson said.

“Then my mother said goodbye and off he went.”

They would go on to have four daughters — including Anne — after Horrie returned from the war.

Fashion flashback 

Today the fragile frock known as “the very useful dress” is on display at Merrigum Museum, where once every 10 years the local historical society hosts a wedding-dress exhibition. 

Society secretary Flo Halliday had the idea to organise a display in 2002, after a number of dresses were donated to the museum. 

Two women stand smiling at the camera, surrounded by wedding dresses and informative posters that are part of a museum display. Flo Halliday and Anne Tyson are busy working on the display with a team of volunteers.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

“It started with a few Merrigum people,” Mrs Halliday said. 

“We’ve collected quite a range over the years, quite a few modern dresses, others dating back to the 19th century.”

Mrs Halliday remembered a time when the local newspaper published “pretty thorough” write-ups of local weddings, which the historical society collected. 

“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.

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Changing styles marked the passing of time and bridal trends, and Ms Tyson suspects one voluminous taffeta number in the collection belonged to a fan of Princess Diana. 

A button up top in a tan colour has a lighter, ruffled collar and a floor length skirt with gathered frills. This 1883 wedding outfit belonged to an Echuca woman who lived on the Murray River.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

Two-piece silk-and-brocade sets in sensible colours offer a glimpse of wedding celebrations in the late 19th century.

One on loan from the Echuca Historical Society belonged to Ellen McNamara, who married August Anderson, born in Finland, in 1883.

The Andersons were “river people” who worked on the banks of the Murray and went on to have six children.

Two donated dresses that belonged to a Melbourne mother and daughter came with mementos 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,” Ms 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.”

A bride in a collared blue lace dress with a light blue veil stands with two flower girls dressed in pink. Alma Zosky of Carlton’s 1952 blue, lace wedding dress is part of the vast collection. (ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

Although Ms Tyson said she “wasn’t of the generation that thought marriage was important”, she did see the significance of holding onto objects from the past. 

So too did her mother, Nancy.

“My mother wasn’t actually a sentimental woman, but she kept the confetti and cake ornament,” Ms Tyson said. 

A close up of a hand holding a small tin with vintage multi-coloured confetti and a tiny plastic ornament of a bride and groom. Ms Tyson holds the confetti and cake topper from her parents’ 1942 wedding in Merrigum.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)