Wedding exhibition chronicles change in fashion and society
by Alastair Hamilton -
A new exhibition at the Shetland Museum and Archives explores the history of Shetland weddings through a stunning display of wedding attire, illuminated by many insights into the lives of those who wore it.
The 134 exhibits are drawn from the Museum’s extensive collection of clothing and most of them have never previously been displayed. Remarkably, the items span 250 years, from 1769 to the present day.
The exhibition chronicles the evolution of wedding fashions worn by Shetland brides, grooms and attendants. It includes silk dresses, highly decorative waistcoats and many photographs. Also on show are Paisley-style shawls, which in winter would keep a bride in a huge dress warm better than a coat; it could be a long walk to and from the kirk. Although they were originally made in Paisley, an important weaving centre, during the 19th century, they were copied elsewhere. The curving designs had their roots in Kashmiri motifs signifying fertility.
However, the stories which lie behind the exhibits are as compelling as the clothes. Carol Christiansen, curator of the exhibition explained:
“In preparing the exhibition we’ve learned a great deal more about what was worn to weddings and the choices people made for their special day. Still photographs of the wedding parties are in black and white, but the exhibition reveals how colourful these celebrations were.”
It’s also clear that Shetland was amply provided with skilled dressmakers, for most of the outfits were made in Shetland, some by the brides themselves. Before 1860, everything was hand-stitched, sewing machines only appearing – at a price – after 1865.
In fact, before the 20th century most clothes – not just wedding clothes – were made in the islands. People had fewer clothes than they do today but what they did have was not only well made but, in the view of 19th century visitors to Shetland, fashionable. Not surprisingly, the tradition of fine lace knitting is represented, as in this veil, attached to a wax and paper coronet, worn by Martha Thomson when she married Captain Laurence Sinclair at Sandwick, in the south mainland, in 1910.
For all but the wealthiest, a wedding dress was not only worn on the big day but also became the ‘best dress’ for many years afterwards, some being altered for pregnancy.
Styles obviously varied from bride to bride. The exhibition includes the dresses worn by two sisters, Ann and Mary Anderson, who came from the north-western parish of Northmavine. Like many of their contemporaries, they chose to get married in Lerwick, though their lives subsequently took different directions. Ann married James Sandison, a Northmavine crofter fisherman, in 1908 and they lived in their home district, raising five children and passing their golden wedding anniversary. Mary married a sea captain, William Isbister, five years later, but they had no children and she returned to Northmavine a widow, after his early death, just 13 years later.
Ann’s dress, in the centre in the photograph below, was made from wool flannel and cotton lace, with velvet trim. The coat on the left was in a then-fashionable military style. Mary’s dress was in champagne-coloured satin-weave silk and cotton, with machine-made lace, sequin and bead medallions, wax orange buds and paper flowers. It originally had long lace sleeves.
The making and buying of dresses changed in the mid-20th century, with local dressmaking firms playing a greater part. So, increasingly, did the materials, with man-made textiles such as rayon and nylon making an appearance.
Although many brides began to buy wedding dresses from specialist shops in places such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow, and may now order them online, local designers and makers have remained active. For example, Lauraine Peterson set up her own business in the 1990s, supplying not only the bride’s dress but veils, head-dresses, hats, mother-of-the-bride outfits, men’s waistcoats and ties. One of her designs, in ivory Shantung silk, is featured in the exhibition.
Some brides still choose to have their dress made in Shetland, working with one of our textile designers to produce something distinctive and very personal. A good example is the dress worn by Lynn Ritch when she married Luke Bullough in 2002. It was designed by Sanna Isbister and Lynn, and is machine- and hand-knitted, using cotton and silk mix hand-dyed yarn with silk and nylon appliqué. There are embroidered words in Lynn’s handwriting style and the matching bag is decorated with glass fragments collected from the Lerwick beach on which her husband proposed.
Another recent example, which reflects the introduction of civil partnerships and same-sex marriages, comes from the civil partnership of Angus Laurenson and Wessel Gouws. Wessel, from South Africa and a qualified fashion designer and chef, adopted a funky take on a Scottish outfit, with a Black Watch modern tartan paired with a black cotton shirt, silk tie and Doc Marten boots. His Shetland partner, Angus, took a more traditional Scottish route, with a kilt in Campbell of Argyll Ancient tartan, Prince Charlie waistcoat and jacket and laced brogues.
The exhibition also includes three grooms' waistcoats, one of which is the oldest item on display, dating from around 1769. In the centre of this group of three, below, it belonged to William Henderson, who was a tacksman on the western island of Papa Stour and married Elizabeth Sinclair of Dunrossness, in the south mainland. It’s in blue-green silk, embroidered with silver-wrapped silk thread and sequins in the form of flowers and leaves.
The two other waistcoats shown date from the mid-19th century. On the left is a blue and red silk voided velvet waistcoat worn by Magnus Hunter, a crofter and merchant seaman, when he married Christina Ann Morrison in 1855. The couple lived in Weisdale and went on to have eight children. On the right, from 1861, is a white wool gabardine waistcoat, block printed in five colours. It was worn by Robert Jamieson, schoolmaster in the west-side village of Sandness, at his marriage to Barbara Laing, also a teacher. Eight of their children lived beyond infancy.
There’s a wide range of accessories on display too, including head-dresses and shoes, and a collection of wedding invitations.
Nor are bridesmaids and flower girls forgotten, with a selection of outfits from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s.
The Shetland Museum and Archives has presented many exhibitions over the years, revealing treasures that, because of space or conservation limitations, can’t be permanently displayed. Occasionally, too, the museum obtains loan items from national collections, as it did when a wonderful Holbein painting went on show in 2018.
This exhibition has been brilliantly curated by the museum’s Carol Christiansen and attractively arranged by the exhibition staff. The information provided, on which this article draws heavily, is extensive, with detailed notes for those who wish to delve deeper into the history and design of exhibits. There are workshops and organised tours, too, plus an evening of wedding stories, poetry and music on 14 March. Overall, it’s a tour de force and will be remembered for many years.
If you’re in Shetland before the exhibition ends on 23 March, I strongly recommend a visit. Yes, the dresses and much else are beautiful; but there is so much more about family history and the evolution of our society and traditions that will engage, delight and move you. Indeed, one couple from Aberdeenshire have already made a special trip north, thanks to a family connection with one of the exhibits.
There simply isn’t space here to do justice to all that’s to be seen; but, to conclude, here’s another of the exhibits, an exquisite dress worn by Sinclair Budge at her marriage, in 1894, to Dr Henry Taylor, who had become the medical doctor for the islands of Yell and Fetlar four years earlier. The dress is in lavender silk that may have been brought from India to Shetland by a Yell merchant seaman, James Stewart. The beautiful corsage has been re-created for the exhibition, from a wedding photograph, by Steven Jamieson at Stems, a local designer flower shop.
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