Australian dress register ID:633
Owner:Miss Porter's House National Trust Newcastle
Owner registration number:43992 (Miss Porter’s House Collection Accession Number)
Place of origin:Newcastle, NSW, Australia
Weddings are usually important and joyful events, marking a milestone in lives. In the 1930s, the vast majority of young women married, and if they could, they marked it with the traditional rituals of the Western wedding ceremony. When Esther Morton married Mervyn Taylor at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle in 1938, she chose as her attendants two friends. The three women had been school friends and would go on to maintain the friendship until their deaths.
The wedding invitation and newspaper articles in the collection of Miss Porter’s House, indicate that the ceremony was in the Warrior’s Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral, and the evening reception in the Great Northern Hotel Newcastle. Both these buildings are of local and state significance, listed as heritage items. The hotel was rebuilt and finished just months before the wedding and was considered one of the grander places.
Ella Baldwin Porter, wearer of this dress, was born in 1911 to a working family in Newcastle. Ella never married and worked as a typist/secretary or in retail most of her life. Like her mother and sister, who she lived with, she was an accomplished craftswoman. She sewed most of her own clothes and won prizes for stencilling and basketry.
This bridesmaid’s dress is a good representation of the fashion of the time. Form fitting with full skirt, accentuated high waist, shirring and ruching, and ruffles and frills were all popular, as were puffed sleeves. (A similar dress is illustrated in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 19th February 1938). Red was not an unusual colour for accessories, as an article in The Sun (Friday 11th March 1938) talks about the ‘carnation red’ being the new shade. It’s interesting that the photographer added red to cheeks and posies, but not to the sashes.
Above all, this dress represents friendship and community. For three generations, the bridesmaid kept in constant contact with the bride, and formed lasting bonds with the bride’s daughter, and her daughter. This is well documented in the Collection at Miss Porter’s House, a National Trust property in Newcastle. Author: Pam Marley, February 2020.
Bridesmaid dress is made of gold embossed brocade that has a small self textured flower pattern. There are four panels in the skirt, which flare out to a very full skirt. These panels are on both the front and back with a gathered ruffle on the hem and two similar ones vertically, on the back, from the waist to the hem. The neckline is v-shaped with shirring at the front and gathering at the front and a ruffle around the back of the neck. There are red remnant threads at the waist front and sides where a red sash was probably attached. The dress is a little high-waisted with short puffed sleeves. The dress fastens with four hooks and eyes at the left side.
Link to further information about this object
History and Provenance
Ella Porter was the daughter of Florence and Herbert Porter and sister to Hazel Porter. After her father died, she lived in the same house at 434 King St, Newcastle, with her sister and mother.
Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information
Ella Porter's date of birth 7th February 1911 at Newcastle; died 25 May 1995 of natural causes in Newcastle. Never married.
Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?
The bridesmaid’s gown was one of two worn at the wedding of Essie Morton to Mervyn Taylor who married 1st October 1938 in the Warrior’s Chapel, Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle.
The bride (Essie Taylor nee Morton) was a close friend of both Ella Porter, and Evelyn Elliott (nee Crook). All three women had matching hand mirrors (see images) with the letter ‘E’ on the back, and they referred to themselves as the “Es.” When Essie married in 1938, Ella was her bridesmaid and Evelyn, who had married the year before, was her matron of honour.
The Newcastle Sun (6th October 1938), tells us that the bride wore a magnolia satin dress with a tulle veil, and carried a bouquet of azalias (sic) and roses. The attendants were in gowns of gold embossed brocade with red velvet sashes, red Victorian bonnets trimmed with flowers, and red posies. The Newcastle Morning Herald (4th October 1938) adds detail of the frilling trim on the hem and the neckline, and that the gowns had short puffed sleeves.
Ella Porter died in 1995, her sister Hazel in 1997. The latter left the house and most of the contents to the National Trust. Among the numerous documents and objects are letters and cards between Essie Taylor and Ella Porter over many decades of their friendship. An invitation to the wedding and photos of the wedding were found in albums.
Ella Porter was the godmother of Essie’s daughter. Other documents include invitations to Essie’s daughter’s christening and birthdays and thankyou notes for presents. This relationship continued with Essie’s granddaughter (including a photo of her at the age of three clutching a clown made by Ella.)
In 2015 Essie’s daughter donated the dress, a newspaper clipping and a letter from Ella. She also confirmed that Ella’s sister had told her that the red shoes found in the house were worn by Ella, the bridesmaid.
How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?
How does this costume relate to the wider historical context?* (400 words)
In the 1930s, Ella Porter, bridesmaid to Essie Morton, was in her late 20s. Unlike so many young women of the time, she never married, and probably worked as a secretary typist and in retail most of her life. It was her income, and her sister’s, which supported their mother. Ella’s father died in the flu epidemic of 1919 when the sisters were very young, so they were never a wealthy family. They learnt to make do and reuse, attested to by the collection of Miss Porter’s House. The sewing machine still in the House today, was bought by mother Florence on her marriage in 1910 from Anthony Hordern and was used throughout the 20th century. The receipt is also in the collection.
Newcastle, being a largely industrial city, was hit hard by the Depression of the 1930s, and by 1938 the effects were still large. We know Ella and her sister Hazel, just beginning their careers, had intermittent and casual work. Even by 1938 when the wedding took place, money would be a consideration.
We have little information on who made the dress, nor the cost of dressmaking and fabric, but given the sewing skills of Ella and her mother, Florence, it’s possible that they had a hand in it. It is unlikely that it is an off-the-peg gown, as it was more usual to employ dressmakers, or have mothers and friends make them.
The dress reflects the fashion of the time as seen in magazines such as the Australian Women’s Weekly. Possibly the bride selected the various styles and trimmings from magazines and dressmaker patterns.
The bridesmaid’s dress was returned to Miss Porter’s House in 2015 by the bride’s daughter. Why she had it, we don’t know.
Where did this information come from?
Research papers, Miss Porter's House; newspaper reports (see Community information) and personal communication with Mrs M. Taylor (Ella's god daughter).
This garment has been exhibited
Occasional display at Miss Porter's House.
Place of origin:
Newcastle, NSW, Australia
Wedding of Essie Morton to Mervyn Taylor.
The Warrior’s Chapel at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle (Newcastle Anglican Cathedral).
Trimmings / Decoration
Ruffles around bottom of hem and two vertical ruffles from waist to hem.
The red ribbon appeared to have been around the waist and attached in three points (front and both sides).
Shirring from centre neckline to waist.
A red ribbon as evidenced by red threads still attached to the garment.
Fibre / Weave
1. Colour: gold
2. Fibre: silk or rayon
3. Weave: brocade
4. Location for all parts included in this record: One colour and fabric for the whole garment.
- Natural dye
- Synthetic dye
Hand made and machine stitched but with some finishing by hand stitching on neckline and hem of sleeves.
- Hand sewn
- Machine sewn
The dress fastens with four hooks and eyes at the left side.
- Hook and eye
|Hem circumference||4550 mm|
|Front neck to hem||1250 mm|
|Front waist to hem||1050 mm|
|Back neck to hem||1420 mm|
|Back waist to hem||1050 mm|
|Sleeve length||300 mm|
|Neck to sleeve head||110 mm|
|Cross back||350 mm|
|Underarm to underarm||440 mm|
|Convert to inches|
The hem circumference is that of the dress but not the flounce, sewn to the bottom of the hem.
Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions
An article in the Newcastle Herald reports that the bridesmaids dress was worn with a red bonnet with ribbon tied under the chin, and a Victorian posy of red flowers was held. However the person who hand-coloured the photograph does not show the vivid gold of the dress or the red colour of the sash and hat, choosing only to colour the posy and cheeks red. Red was a favourite colour of the era.
Other related objects
Images of these objects accompany the text.
Newspaper article (PH 1944) Newcastle Herald 4th October 1938, describes the wedding event, including a description of the bridesmaid’s dress.
Wedding invitation (PH1945) to Ella Porter for the wedding of Essie Morton and Mervyn Taylor.
Wedding Photograph (PH 900) includes photograph of Ella Porter in the Bridesmaid’s dress.
Shoes (42718) Red velvet shoes worn with bridesmaid’s dress.
Hand Mirror (43210) each of the three friends (Ella Porter, Essie Taylor (nee Morton), and Evelyn Elliott (nee Crook) owned an identical mirror all with the letter ‘E’ on the back. This mirror was owned by Essie Morton and donated to the collection at MPH in 2015.
Link to collection online
Some remnant threads from the red ribbon (sewn to the waistline).
Evidence of repairs