Extraordinary stories of 40 wedding gowns over 180 years
Her mother made her wedding dress and it was too precious to leave behind. As a war tore through her home country of Laos, Jou Yang desperately cradled the dress into her arms along with her baby brother and fled.
Despite barely knowing how to swim, Jou strapped the dress and her brother to her body and waded through the dangerous waters of the Kong River in search of safety.
It was 1981 and Jou was 18. She never imagined the journey she would have to make to be able to wear this dress on her wedding day, or more incredibly, to survive.
Sadly, Jou lost her mother and father in the war and her brother died before they reached land. All she had left was the dress. As much as Jou's is a story of tragedy, it's also one of love.
When she reached the safety of a Thai refugee camp, she was reunited with her childhood friend, Doua Yang, who also fled Laos, and they wed soon after. Jou finally wore the dress that her mother so intricately worked on; the dress that had become much more than just an outfit.
Years later, Jou, who now lives in Cairns, has kept this dress close to her heart. To her, it's about tradition, culture, family, strength and love. And now, that dress is being immortalised.
Jou's gown is one of more than 40 outfits from the past 180 years on display as part of the I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland exhibition at the Queensland Museum. Each has its own powerful and significant story to tell.
The exhibition reflects on how wedding custom, fashion, tradition and circumstance have changed over the past hundred years.
It features the wedding gowns of Brisbane identities including active wear mogul Lorna Jane Clarkson, jewellery designer Christie Nicolaides and style icon Leanne Zimmerman.
Alongside their dresses will be the suits of Brisbane athletes Craig and Luke Burns after they made history as one of the first same-sex couples to marry when gay marriage became legal in Australia.
It's not all fashion, with over 100 wedding objects through the ages including invitations, telegrams, gift registry lists, seating plans from the '50s and, in more recent times, masks worn during a wedding impacted by COVID-19.
Each item, says Queensland Museum social history curator Judith Hickson, is a reflection of fashion, history, tradition and culture.
"Every change we see is seen through the historical context of the time and weddings and traditions have all responded to what's going on in the world at the time," she says.
Among the standout outfits, says Hickson, are a dress worn in the 1800s, a Fijian tapa dress made from traditional materials and a bride's pair of culottes worn in the 1970s, a controversial statement at the time.
"The priest who married that bride said, 'If I knew you were wearing pants, I wouldn't have married you' … how things have changed," Hickson says.
"It is very clear when we look at the dresses and how they've evolved with the type of fabrics, designs, style of the people who wore them and it's all a product of their environment and time.
"In the '50s it was full skirts and in the '60s it was miniskirts and high boots and then the fashion changed again evolving into the '70s when we were still going through the feminist movement. In the early '80s we had Princess Di and she had a huge influence on bridal fashion. Lady Di might have revolutionised the wedding industry."
As time goes on, more brides are choosing to break with traditions, like Nicolaides, who says she was never going to wear white.
The designer walked down the aisle in a Dolce and Gabbana black floral gown and instead of a bouquet, she filled a Dolce and Gabbana bag with red flowers.
"Anyone who knows me knew I wasn't going to wear the traditional white gown," she says.
"I fell in love with the dress I chose, it's beautiful with very fine black tulle with hand embroidered flowers.
"I tried on about 15 dresses but I knew that was the one straight away."
Nicolaides found her dress in Rome while on a European holiday and as she recounts the day, she relives the magic.
"You couldn't dream up this kind of experience … it was a once in a lifetime moment.
"I loved the idea of having this mission on holiday (to find a dress) … I thought it would be a beautiful thing to do."
Nicolaides married her longtime partner, Stephen Sourris in 2017 at the Greek Orthodox Church in Brisbane followed by a reception at Queensland Art Gallery.
It was the little things, she says, which made it special, like creating her own jewellery to wear alongside pieces for her bridesmaids and guests. "I designed all the jewellery around the gown for me and the bridesmaids and also the guests," she says.
"Everyone got given a custom piece of jewellery, the men got a daisy lapel and all the women got a pair of daisy earrings.
"I created 15 pieces, I had so much fun … I had so many inquiries I turned it into the Margarita Matrimonio Collection (for my jewellery label)."
As a designer, Clarkson also made the most of her skills to create her perfect dress.
"It made sense for me to design my own dress, and then I asked a local dressmaker (Suzanne Spicer) who specialised in wedding dresses to make it for me," says Clarkson, who married in 1995 in the Anglican church in Paddington with the reception at Dockside at Kangaroo Point. "I tried on so many dresses before I decided on the exact style I wanted and then I just pulled a whole lot of inspiration together and we worked on it from there."
But it wasn't about fashion, Clarkson says, it was, and still is, about love and commitment.
"I remember there being so much fuss about my dress and my hair and getting the perfect pictures and me not caring so much about all of those things but just wanting to get to the church, see Bill and get married," she says.
"All of the details had seemed so important in the lead-up to the wedding but on the day, it was simply about vowing to spend the rest of my life with this man that had already changed my life in so many wonderful ways and is still the love of my life today, 25 years later."
This year, Hickson says, will play a dramatic part on weddings in the future.
As bushfires raged across the country earlier this year and the global pandemic took hold soon after forcing government restrictions on gatherings and border closures, couples have had to be reminded of what's most important - each other.
Some of these couples who have had their wedding impacted by this year's events will share their stories as part of the exhibition and add a new chapter to our history books.
"Small weddings will become much more common, people will elope as they did in the war years when they got married in an old dress or their uniforms," Hickson says.
"It was much more important to get married than have a big wedding."
Through the stories and tales behind each object and dress, like Jou's, is a reminder that a wedding is much more than it seems.
It's a moment captured in time, history and a story to pass down to generations to come.
c runs Sept 18 until February 21, 2021, at the Queensland Museum
Originally published as The extraordinary stories of 40 wedding gowns from past 180 years