Wedding dress, brown silk and green brocade

Contributed by: Port Macquarie Historical Society

Maria Harper's wedding dress back Maria Harper's wedding dress Maria Harper's wedding dress front Insect damage to skirt lining Staining, possibly bleach damage to upper skirt Fraying to silk covered buttons Silk ribbon edges to bodice seams and to reinforce buttons
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Port Macquarie Historical Society
  • Owner registration number:

    PMHM 5095
  • Date range:

  • Place of origin:

    Armidale, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This well worn and altered wedding dress is a good example of a woman's best dress worn as a wedding dress. It was worn by Maria Harper (nee Mulligan) [1856-1894] at her marriage to Samuel Harper [1855-1916] on 29 August, 1883 at Armidale, New South Wales. The dress is well worn, evidencing its wear on many subsequent occasions.

This dress is also a fine representative example of a late 19th Century dress, with its well fitted front buttoning bodice with peplum and full skirt with decorative tucks and brocade panels. It is the only coloured wedding dress in the Port Macquarie Historical Society collection. The dress evidences the sewing skills of its maker and wearer, Maria Harper.

The skirt in particular also shows evidence of many alterations perhaps to allow for the seven pregnancies Maria had during her ten short years of marriage. Maria and Samuel had ten children in as many years, including three sets of twins however none of the twins survived more than a few weeks. Her four remaining children were left motherless when Maria died of heart failure in 1894.

After its donation to the collection, the skirt was unstitched and apparently re-sewn to its original stitching lines to restore the dress to its original design by museum volunteer Pearl Anderson.

The dress provides an interesting contrast to many costumes within the collection and is significant because of its association with several long-established Port Macquarie families; the Wilsons and Thurlings. It is an important object to interpret the themes of women's costume, particularly late 19th Century, costume design and creation, wedding costumes, wedding rights and rituals and pregnancy and childbirth.

Author: Debbie Sommers, 11th August 2010.


Brown silk faille and green silk brocade dress comprising front buttoning bodice and separate panelled skirt. Bodice has a round neck with small stand up collar and fastens with ten silk covered buttons down the centre front. It has a decorative pleated flap or peplum at the centre back lined with green brocade. The skirt has diagonal tucks across the stomach and vertical pleats in the centre panel. The side panels are silk faille and/or brocade. The skirt is gathered and tucked at the waist and has a large pocket on the right hand side. There is small box pleating around the hem line.

Worn by Maria Mulligan [1856-1894] at her marriage to Samuel Harper [1855 -1916] on 29 August 1883 at Armidale, New South Wales.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Maria Mulligan was born at Nundle, NSW in August 1856. Her parents Esther and John Mulligan migrated to Australia from Ireland in December 1855 on the 'Conrad'. Maria was the eldest daughter and according to the family history was not a strong robust child. At some stage of her childhood she went to live with her aunt Isabella (her mother's sister) and her uncle James McLean who were childless and they raised Maria as their own. James and Isabella lived in Armidale, NSW where James had interests in flour mills and a drapery store. Maria lived with the McLean's until her marriage to Samuel Harper in 1883 at the age of 27 years.

Maria and Samuel had 10 children in as many years, including three sets of twins however none of the twins survived more than a few weeks. The four remaining children, Ethel, Alexander, Jessie and Norman were left motherless when Maria died of heart failure on 10 January 1894 aged 37 years. Maria's eldest child Ethel, aged 8 years went to live with the McLean's (Maria's aunt and uncle) who raised her as they had Maria.

Ethel married Eric John Wilson a school teacher in December 1916 and in early 1917 they moved to Llanthony School on the Hastings River, then Cogo (Upper Rollands Plains) and then to Blackman's Point School. Ethel and Eric Wilson moved to Port Macquarie in 1928 where their five children, Eric, Jessie, Norman, Dorothy and Robert, were born and raised.

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

Dorothy Thurling ( Maria's granddaughter) initiated the donation of the dress to PMHS, according to Dorothy the skirt had been completely let out and that Pearl Anderson, Museum Volunteer, had unpicked the skirt and resewn it to the original sewing marks and replaced the lace at the neck and cuffs to 'restore' the dress to its original state. The nylon lace addition has now been removed.

A family history written by Dorothy Thurling mentions that "Maria filled her time with beautiful needle work, painting and artistic scrap books"

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Historic significance as a personal item belonging to a woman of whom several prominent Port Macquarie families are descendants. Provenanced but in an altered state.

Representative example of an 1880s wedding dress. Dresses such as this were also worn for a number of years often being altered or let out to accommodate widening waists, hips and busts as a result of ageing or pregnancy. It appears that Maria's dress had been let out probably due to pregnancy given that she had 7 pregnancies in 10 years.

The dress is brown and green and more of a 'best' dress than a wedding dress, so it makes an interesting contrast to the more traditional wedding dresses held in the Port Macquarie Historical Society collection.

Made by the owner and wearer the dress bodice evidences Maria Harper's tailoring and needlework skills.

Where did this information come from?

Archives and collection records of the Port Macquarie Historical Society including telephone conversations with Dorothy Thurling, Births, Deaths and Marriage records - NSW and Ryerson Index.

Maria Mulligan's family

Thurling Dorothy, unpublished, 1986

Costume in Australia 1788-1901

Fletcher Marion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1984

The Bride - A Celebration

Tober Barbara, Harry N Abrams, New York, 1984

This garment has been exhibited

This Wedding Dress was exhibited in "For Better or Worse" - Women and Weddings of the Hastings, a temporary exhibition held at the Port Macquarie Historical Museum from August to December 2005. The exhibition was one of a number of exhibitions developed as part of the 'Her Story' thematic study project in the Port Macquarie Hastings area. Earlier display history of the dress has not been recorded.

From August 2010 it is on display in a permanent exhibition of women's crafts and textiles at the Port Macquarie Historical Museum as a changeover garment.

  1. Place of origin:

    Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Maria Harper (nee Mulligan)( [1856- 1894] handed down to her daughter Jessie Frank (nee Harper) and then to Jessie's son Bill (Lloyd) Frank who donated it to the Port Macquarie Historical Society in 1976.

  3. Worn by:

    Maria Harper (nee Mulligan) [1856-1894]

  4. Occasion(s):

    At her marriage to Samuel Harper on 29 August 1883 and probably on other occasions until her death in 1894

  5. Place:


  6. Made by:

    Probably made by Maria Harper (nee Mulligan), as Maria was known to have been a competent needleworker filling her time with beautiful needle work, painting and artistic scrap books. It is possible that the fabric was obtained from her adopted father's drapery store in Armidale.

  7. Made for:

    Maria Harper (nee Mulligan)

Trimmings / Decoration

Green silk brocade decorative panels on skirt at either side of centre tucked panel


Diagonal tucks across stomach in skirt front

Fibre / Weave

Brown silk faille used on bodice and skirt

Green silk brocade used on skirt panels and peplum lining

Polished cotton lining in skirt and a brown woollen facing at hem.

Linen lining in bodice and cotton twill lining in sleeves

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


Mostly machine stitched with hand-stitching at hem. Bodice seams have a silk ribbon binding to prevent fraying.

As the skirt has been unstitched and resewn the seams are very untidy.


Side seams of bodice 'let out' under the arms. Skirt seams had been let out but have been completely unstitched and resewn to what was believed to be the original seams following its donation to the museum. Thin elastic has been added to the skirt waist.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


There is a seam across one of the brocade panels perhaps to save on fabric or make use of a fabric remnant.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


Hook and Eye fastenings on skirt. Ten silk satin covered buttons on bodice front.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The bodice is lined with sized or stiffened linen and the sleeves with a twill cotton. Kapok interlining has been placed in the bodice front from shoulder to bust. The bodice has several whalebone inserts, however two of the inserts have been removed.

Brown silk ribbon has been used to edge the bodice seams and reinforce the buttons.

The skirt has been lined with a polished cotton and a brown woollen facing at the lower edge appears to be a later addition.


bodice skirt
Chest 820 mm
Waist 660 mm 630 mm
Front waist to hem 980 mm
Back waist to hem 1070 mm
Sleeve length 500 mm
Neck to sleeve head 150 mm
Cross back 260 mm
Underarm to underarm 400 mm
Convert to inches

Dress Themes

Whilst this dress was made for Maria Harper's wedding, given its colour, design and evidence of wear, it is clear that it would have been worn afterwards as a 'best' dress. The concept of a separate white wedding dress began in Victorian times for families who could afford the expense of a single wear wedding dress. This was not the case for Maria Harper.

An anonymous Victorian verse refers to wedding dresses of many different colours:

" Married in white, you have chosen all right; Married in grey, you will go far away; Married in black, you will wish yourself back; Married in red, you wish yourself dead; Married in green, ashamed to be seen; Married in blue, he will always be true; Married in pearl, you will live in a whirl; Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow; Married in brown, you will live out of town; Married in pink, your fortunes will sink."


Overall there is some discolouration and fading to most fabric areas. There is fraying along the hemline from wear, there are insect holes in the skirt lining, the bodice fabric has faded and there are darned areas under each arm on sleeves and bodice. There are also perspiration stains in that area. The satin covered buttons are very frayed.

There appears to be some bleaching marks or stains to the upper skirt near the fastenings.

Evidence of repairs

There are darned areas in the jacket mostly underarm. Modern elastic has been added to the waist and as already mentioned above, most of the skirt seams were unstitched and resewn after the dress was donated to the museum by volunteer Pearl Anderson, in order to 'restore' the dress to its original shape and design. Apparently the skirt was restitched to its original stitching marks, however the skirt has an unusual shape to it which suggests it had been altered at some stage. The integrity of the restoration is not clear as there were no records kept at the museum of work carried out on this garment. The skirt seams are very untidy. The woollen facing at the hemline appears to be a later addition.

The nylon lace trim added to the bodice neck and cuffs in 1976 was removed on 6 August 2010.

Insect damage

Evidence of moth holes on woollen facing added at hemline


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Discolouration
  2. Fading
  3. Frayed
  4. Holes
  5. Stained
  6. Worn
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