Mrs Mary Irvine's (nee Halpin) wedding dress c.1860

Contributed by: Manning Valley Historical Society

Mary Irvine's (nee Halpin)  Wedding gown (front view) side view
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Manning Valley Historical Society
  • Date range:

  • Place of origin:

    Dingo Creek, Manning River, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This well provenanced wedding gown, which is linked to many well known Manning Valley families, dates back to 1860. It is beautiful in its simplicity but clever in its practical design. It appears to have been handmade by a young Irish Catholic migrant, a lady who was preparing to become a mother but would be required to renounce her religion in order to marry the father of the child.

There would have been immense social pressure on the couple through the courtship period and up until the nuptials. The marriage ceremony itself was conducted outside both of the couple's faiths, which would be less than ideal, especially for a devout Presbyterian family such as David Irvine's. The Anglican Minister may have been necessary to speed up the nuptials (due to pregnancy) if the Presbyterian Minister was unable to attend within a short time frame and this was often the case for clergy when servicing outlying rural properties.

In the following years, Mary Irvine's marital religious conversion obviously maintained a happy marriage that went on to produce six children in total and the Irvine's became pillars of the Manning Valley community. However, it is apparent through family stories and her final burial that the religious conversion may have in fact been personally painful and that she never truly converted.

When this gown is compared against her daughter-in-law Rebecca's wedding gown (ADR #415), it is clear that the struggles and savings that David and Mary Irvine endured to build their prosperity over four decades was to be later enjoyed by their son Thomas. Not only did he inherit the property 'Wombateena' and build a new homestead but he married the daughter from a prominent Manning Valley family- the Summerville's. The Rebecca Irvine (nee Summerville) gown is indeed lavish and is a gown made to be worn on one special day, whereas Mary's was simple, practical and made to be worn frequently after the wedding as a 'Sunday best'. Thomas's wife Rebecca had the luxury of being able to afford to lay her special gown away to be passed down through the generations.

This wedding gown continues to be important for aesthetic, social and spiritual examination.

Manning Valley Historical Society would like to thank the Great Lakes Historical Society for allowing this garment to be recorded on the ADR for future generations.

Author: Marsha Rennie, 28/8/12.


A one piece full length wedding gown made of coffee brown shot silk taffeta with royal blue undertones. On the face of it, it would appear a simply structured tea gown of its period to be worn without a corset. The gown is modestly trimmed with fine gold silk fringing on the cuffs of the long sleeves and down both sides of the centre front panel. This decorative centre front panel runs from the shoulder seams diagonally down towards the waistline forming a triangular shape which flatters the waist. It has seven copper coloured painted metal shank buttons running down the centre of this panel. At the waist is a fine band of piping before falling into a full gathered skirt with 'organ' pleating. The dress is fully lined with unbleached cotton. The dress has twelve original brass hooks with hand worked eyelets on the rear of the bodice and appears to be missing a back skirt extension or train which would have covered the remaining rear of the 81cm opening that doesn't have a fastening method. The gown would have been worn with petticoats. It has a small hat made of brown and cream velvets with a lace train to cover the hair worn in a bun. The lace on the hat may have co-ordinated with a lace collar which would have traditionally be worn with such a dress.

The real mystery and design discovery was uncovered when the bodice was turned over and two cotton binding tape edged slots with brass hook and eyes were found over the breasts. There was also evidence of liquid staining on the lining due to possible lactation. From the front of bodice access to the breast was gained by moving the fringed panel to the side where the closure is revealed.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Mary Irvine (nee Halpin) b. 1831 d.1903

David Irvine b. 1829 d.1888

David and Mary Irvine were married by Rev. William Clarkson Hawkins on the 20th November 1860 and subsequently had 6 children.

*Margaret 20th June 1861 (Birth registered 5th August 1861)

*Eliza 1862

*David 1867

*Mary 1864

*Ellen 1865

*Thomas Agnew 1870

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

The marriage of Mary Halpin to David Irvine is not listed on the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages as most others, but was found by the great granddaughter Mrs Barbara Waters (nee Irvine) via the St John's church register. The interesting fact of the ceremony which occurred at the family property 'Wombateena', was that a Presbyterian David was married to an Irish Catholic Mary by an Anglican Minister.

This alone is interesting but when the nursing seams were discovered on the wedding gown, it certainly raised more questions. The first question obviously, was Mary pregnant or nursing at the time of the marriage and is that why the Anglican ceremony took place on the farm. Mr Eric Richardson, great grandson of Mary, suggests that on his side of the family this was known but checks of the NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages suggest that the first child, Margaret, was born in 1861, a year after marriage.

The next question is whether generations of family have actually had it wrong and this is not a wedding gown but a 'Sunday best' dress? The extensive wear may support this but without a photo of the marriage we are unable to confirm either way. However, the fact that the dress still survives in itself suggests that the belief it was Mary's wedding gown was firmly held by the generations who have cared for it.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

The story of this dress is unclear and therefore the possibilities of how it may relate to wider historical contexts are broad.

It explores the social challenges of unwed mothers and it may be that in this instance the couple went to great lengths to hide the pregnancy assisted by members of the community.

It also examines the pressures that young couples faced when entering into mixed religion relationships. It is known that Mary Irvine was to renounce her Catholicism once married. She lived her life as a Presbyterian with her husband David.

This example of marital conversion refers to the concept of religious conversion upon marriage, either as a conciliatory act, or a mandated requirement according to a particular religious belief.

Family stories tell that in later years, her son Thomas discovered her religious symbols such as a rosary which she had kept her whole life and it is said that she may have been turned out. It is true that she left 'Wombateena' and went to live in Wingham with her daughter Mary who was married to J.B.Richardson (Mayor of Wingham at the time). However, it may just be that medical treatment would be more accessible in town, as she was suffering from a long term illness that, not long after, took her life.

Whatever religious prejudices were faced, the family ultimately accepted her faith as she was buried alone at the Catholic cemetery at Woola Woola. Her grave is listed on the Australian Cemeteries Index.

Where did this information come from?

Information gathered for this entry was provided by Mrs Barbara Waters (nee Irvine) and Mr Eric Richardson.

This garment has been exhibited

This garment was first exhibited at Wingham's Pageant of Fashion and worn by her great grand daughter Judy Wisemantal (nee Edstein). Please see additional material for the image.

This garment is currently owned by the Great Lakes Historical Society, Tuncurry NSW. It was loaned to the Manning Valley Historical Society to enable the item to be placed on the ADR and consequently be exhibited at the Manning Valley Historical Society's celebration of History Week 8 - 16 September 2012 'Threads They wore what?!', where many of the Society's well provenanced historical wedding gowns were exhibited, including three generations of gowns from the Irvine family.

  1. Place of origin:

    Dingo Creek, Manning River, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Mrs Mary Irvine (nee Halpin) b.1831

    Mary Halpin aged 25 came out with her sister Eliza as assisted immigrants from Ireland in 1855 aboard the 'Mangerton'. Her brother Laurence was already established in Australia at this time. The Halpin family acquired a property at 'Turn back', Dingo Creek, Manning River where they became neighbours of the Irvines. The Halpins were Irish Catholics.

    David Irvine's family had come out from Scotland sponsored by A.B Smith & Co a smaller mercantile agent. The family had strong Presbyterian and agricultural roots.

  3. Worn by:

    Mary Irvine

  4. Occasion(s):

    At her marriage to David Irvine.

  5. Place:

    At the Irvine property 'Wombateena', Dingo Creek, Wingham.

  6. Made by:

    Most likely made by Mary Halpin herself.

  7. Made for:

    Mary Irvine (nee Halpin)

Trimmings / Decoration


A very fine 2cm wide gold silk fringing is used as trim on sleeve cuffs and bodice.


One thin band of piping on the waist separating the bodice from the full gathered skirt (organ pleating).

Fibre / Weave

The garment is made of a shot silk taffeta, a coffee brown with a royal blue undertone. It has an unbleached stiffened cotton as lining throughout and has been sewn in both natural and coffee coloured threads to co-ordinate where necessary.

It has been referred to as paper taffeta- it is crisp indeed, so much so that after years of folded storage it unfolds hardly creased and has fewer cracks at creases than one might expect given its age. It is not confirmed that this is in fact 19th century 'paper' taffeta.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


A mixture of hand sewn and machine sewn. As is common, the longer major seams have been machine stitched. This gown appears homemade, using simplistic design and finishing techniques. Originally, the garment had twelve handworked eyelets for brass hooks on the rear of bodice.


Ten handworked eyelets were added and positioned 3.5cm back from the original eyelets which would indicate a decrease in bust measurement. A strip of white muslin has been sewn into place behind the eyelets to give reinforcement- may have been a modern addition.

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


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


Seven decorative copper painted metal shaft buttons run down the centre front. There are twelve brass hooks and handworked eyelets on the original back closure with a further ten new hand worked eyelets. Both breast openings are fastened with 2 brass hook and eyes.

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

This gown is fully lined with unbleached stiffened cotton. Cotton binding tape used to bind the raw edges of breast openings.


Neck 490 mm
Chest 870 mm
Waist 750 mm
Hem circumference 2650 mm
Front neck to hem 1340 mm
Front waist to hem 1030 mm
Back neck to hem 1470 mm
Back waist to hem 1080 mm
Sleeve length 560 mm
Neck to sleeve head 180 mm
Cross back 380 mm
Underarm to underarm 430 mm
Convert to inches

The nursing holes are 180mm long with 2 brass hook and eyes as closures. The gown has a rear opening of 810mm but only 390 of which is closed with hooks and handworked eyelets. Covering the rest of the opening would have depended upon the use of a train or back skirt extension which is missing.

Dress Themes

This dress had extensive use as evidenced by the darning under the arms. Whether the gown was truly Mary Irvine's wedding gown or just her 'Sunday best' is something that will never be known given there is no photograph from the Irvine-Halpin marriage.

Additional material

Other related objects

This gown relates to the Rebecca Irvine (nee Summerville) wedding gown in the Manning Valley Historical Society collection and also included on the Australian Dress register (ADR #415).


The silk is generally in good condition except for some splits on the bodice. The cotton lining is splitting throughout.There are sweat stains under the arms and liquid staining visible on the cotton lining over the breasts. The silk has split on the fold of the hem.

Evidence of repairs

There is extensive darning under both arms and muslin sewn onto the back of eyelets to stabilise the eyelets and splitting silk.


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


  1. Discolouration
  2. Holes
  3. Parts missing
  4. Stained
  5. Worn
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