Melburnin’ September 2014
Wedding Glamour at Rippon Lea
by Inga Walton
Currently on display within the historic Rippon Lea House, Love, Desire & Riches – The Fashion of Weddings, (until 30 September, 2014) capitalises on the enduring appeal of the wedding dress as an object of personal expression, a testament to the fluctuations of style and taste, and a signifier of wider cultural and social mores. Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna, Cultural Collections curator of the National Trust, has assembled over sixty examples of wedding, bridesmaid and formal gowns, ‘going away’ dresses, lingerie and menswear, complemented by numerous smaller items of matrimonial ephemera such as footwear, wreaths, photographs, and invitations. Rarely seen dresses from the National Trust Collection range in date from a silk pelisse worn by the teenage Clara Matilda Hamilton in 1827, to a silk Ottoman hooded ensemble worn by Australian actress Elizabeth Harris in 1968.
Recently presented as the finale to the exhibition Valentino: Master of Couture (2012-13) at Somerset House, London, the exhibition includes the bridal gown worn by Marie-Chantal Miller when she married HRH. Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece on July 1, 1995, at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, London. Pavlos is the eldest son of King Constantine II who fled Greece in December, 1967, and was deposed as monarch by the military junta in June, 1973. The abolition of the monarchy was confirmed by a referendum held in December, 1974, which established the so-called ‘Third Hellenic Republic’. Greek monarchists and various political parties there still support the restoration of a constitutional monarchy, and Melbourne’s large Greek population offers some context for the loan. “We wanted gowns with local interest and the Princess is much loved by the Greek community”, remarks Anya-Petrivna.
The magnificent couture gown, unyielding in its structured formality and perhaps over-burdened with expectation, took the Valentino atelier four months to complete, at a reported £140,000 (around $248,000). Twenty-five seamstresses worked on the dense embroidery of appliqué roses on the skirt and train, with smaller floral motifs echoed on the lace bodice and sleeves. The dress incorporates twelve different kinds of lace, and was anchored by a 4.5 meter long veil of Chantilly lace with a scalloped edge, the interior featuring floral sprays and butterflies. Crown Princess Marie-Chantal has said of its inception, “I had known Valentino [Garavani] for a while, and I always had told him he would be designing my dress at my wedding. I think a week after our engagement I went to see him and he already had a few sketches. They were all beautiful and very original. What struck me most was the detail he wanted me to have on the gown and veil. It has been such an honour to have the dress exhibited in public and be able to share it, seeing it on display makes me appreciate the workmanship even more”.
The extravagant nuptials of the American heiress and the Prince with no kingdom seemed reminiscent of the plotline from an Edith Wharton novel. Although Walter Bagehot’s sage observation in The English Constitution (1867) still retains its pertinence:
The women- one half the human race at least- care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry. All but a few cynics like to see a pretty novel touching for a moment the dry scenes of the grave world. A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.
The ‘princely’ Valentino shares space in the Drawing Room with three extraordinarily ornate dresses from the Trust’s collection. Two are by the fashionable French house of Maugas, much patronised by royalty and high society in Paris, and both worn by local brides in 1889. The third dress, attributed to dressmaker Mrs Chapman of Grosvenor Square, was worn for a London wedding in 1888, the central panel of the moiré silk skirt is smothered in loops of nacre pearls and glass beading.
More recent examples of ‘statement’ dresses include Toni Matičevski’s 2013 creation for model Jennifer Hawkins of soft white millefeuille silk layers draped from a structured corset bodice and pooling out to a sweeping train. For her 2012 wedding, model Kyly Boldy collaborated with designer Alex Perry to create a dress that would take his workroom four months to complete. The bodice is covered with closely formed swirls of silver sequins, beads and Swarovski crystal flowers that took 150 hours of hand-beading to realise, while the ruffled skirt of 150 meters of satin backed with silk organza is interspersed with ostrich feathers. Two contemporary dresses by Collette Dinnigan use the same hand-beaded elements, but are a study in contrasts. The slinky Swarovski Crystal Gown (2004), with its sinuous line and plunging décolletage has arrangements of large crystals in an Art Deco geometric formation fanning out across the tulle. Her Crystal Queen Swarovski Gown (2007), is a one-off extravaganza of silk and tulle included in the touring exhibition Swarovski Crytallised. Very much in the ‘fantasy princess’ genre, the dress has a strapless bodice embroidered with lace and spattered with crystals, which extends down the back to form a flaring train over a sea of tulle.
Rippon Lea was presumably the sentimental choice to host the exhibition, since it is partially maintained by its pre-eminent position as a wedding venue. Other income from corporate events, concerts, theatre productions, and as a filmic location, is in keeping with the previous owners’ use of the property for entertainment and charitable events. The much-beloved residence became the thirty-third site to be included on the National Heritage List in August, 2006. Its history, as one of the finest surviving examples of a large late nineteenth century private suburban estate, is intimately entwined with the economic boom brought by the Victorian gold rush period from around 1851 to the late 1880s. Melbourne had rapidly become one of the richest cities in the world, and the mercantile middle class had grown in wealth and proportion to the rapid expansion of Victoria’s population, and the need for all manner of equipment and supplies.
The story of this imposing estate begins, as many do, with a wedding: this one in October, 1830. Frederick James Sargood (1805-73), a draper working in Walworth, married one of his customers Emma Rippon (1799-1884). Thereafter, Frederick James opened his own drapery business in London, but grew disillusioned by the conditions in England, and decided to move with Emma and their family of six to the Australian colonies. Following the Sargoods’ arrival in February, 1850, Frederick James opened a draper’s store in Collins Street, and the next year established a clothing and drapery wholesale import firm based in Flinders Street. When gold was discovered, Frederick James shrewdly extended his business to supply wholesale soft goods to the prospectors on the goldfields, as Sargood, King & Co., and soon reaped the rewards. His rising civic profile saw Frederick James emerge as a leading Liberal-nonconformist figure. He served in the unicameral Victorian Legislative Council as the Member for City of Melbourne (1853-56), and in the inaugural Victorian Legislative Assembly as the Member for St. Kilda (1856-57). Frederick James resigned his seat in December, 1857 and returned to England the next year in order to manage the London branch of his expanding company.
Meanwhile, the Sargoods’ only son, Frederick Thomas (1834-1903), started his professional life as a clerk in the Melbourne Public Works Department, before joining his father’s firm. Between 1852 and 1854 the young man helped to manage the family business, initially from a tent in the Bendigo-Castlemaine district. In 1858, the year of his father’s departure, Frederick Thomas married Marian Australia Rolfe (1839-79), only daughter of Hon. George Rolfe (1808-71), MLC, another prominent Melbourne merchant-turned-politician. Frederick Thomas became a junior partner in the family business in 1859, and joined the Victorian Volunteer Artillery, thus establishing his credentials as a man of rising influence in the Colony. Two years after their marriage, the couple made a visit to Frederick James and Emma, then living at the grand 1830s house Broad Green Lodge in Croydon, Surrey, with its landscaped grounds and lake. This property almost certainly inspired Frederick Thomas to build his own gracious family seat when he returned to Melbourne, and in 1868 he bought 11.3 hectares (34 acres) of scrubland at Elsternwick.
To realise his vision, Frederick Thomas turned to Joseph Reed (c.1823-90), probably the most influential and prolific architect in Victoria of his time. After initial success as working under his own name, including commissions for the State Library of Victoria (1854), Geelong Town Hall (1855), and Wesley Church at 148 Lonsdale Street (1857-58), he founded a practice with Frederick Barnes (1824-84), Reed and Barnes in 1862. The firm was responsible for numerous municipal and ecclesiastical buildings, including Melbourne Town Hall (1869), the Royal Exhibition Building (1879), and Ormond College at Melbourne University (1881). Reed completed the building of St Paul’s Cathedral (1891) after the distinguished English architect William Butterfield (1814-1900) resigned from the project in 1884.
In 1863, Reed travelled to Europe whereupon he became enamoured of the polychrome brick architecture of Lombardy. Upon his return, Reed designed the mansion ‘Canally’ (1864) at 41-49 Powlett Street, East Melbourne for the Reverend James Taylor, the earliest documented example in Victoria of a building in that idiom. (Coincidentally, Taylor was pastor of the Baptist Church at 174 Collins Street, also designed by Reed in 1862). Reed’s penchant for polychrome extended to his designs for St Jude’s Church at 235 Palmerston Street, Carlton (1866-67), and the National School (now the Kathleen Syme Education Centre) at 249-251 Faraday Street, Carlton (1876-77). However, it was Reed’s work on the Independent Church (now St. Michael’s Uniting) at 120 Collins Street (1866), which appealed to Frederick Thomas and secured Reed the commission for the new property.
Rippon Lea would be named in honour of the Sargood family matriarch and the English poetic term for a meadow. Frederick Thomas kept himself appraised of engineering and technological developments overseas. It was his intention that Rippon Lea be self-sufficient like the great English stately homes, a daunting prospect given the flat, sandy waste at Elsternwick. It seems likely that the design for what was to become a brilliant and productive garden was Sargood’s own. An elaborate underground watering system was installed, and further extended in the 1880s to maintain the vegetable gardens, orchards and formal gardens.
While the Sargood family grew and flourished in Victoria, one of the most popular works in English literature had been published, Charles Dickens’ thirteenth novel Great Expectations (1861). Dickens was keenly interested in Australia, and had numerous friends and acquaintances who settled here; in the novel, the character of Abel Magwitch is deported to the colony of New South Wales. In tribute to Dickens, Anya-Petrivna has transformed the Dining Room into that of Satis House where the wealthy but embittered Miss Havisham broods about her aborted marriage to the swindler Compeyson, while the wedding breakfast and cake continues to decay.
One of the great literary archetypes, Miss Havisham may have been partially based on the story of Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1827-86) of Camperdown. Eliza was jilted by her groom and left the wedding cake to go stale, the house in darkness, and the door permanently ajar, in case her fiancé returned. Joyce Hammond’s dress for Maxine Audley from the miniseries Great Expectations (Alan Bridges, 1967), is joined by two worn by Gillian Anderson in a more recent version (Brian Kirk, 2011). Designer Annie Symons made a set of eight dresses to illustrate the deterioration of the wedding gown Miss Havisham never removes, but also to indicate her fraying mental state and the desolation of her ruined life.
The rise of Frederick Thomas Sargood as a public figure continued apace. His election to the Legislative Council in May, 1874 as the member for Central Province came the year after Frederick James’ death in England. His wife Marian oversaw a busy household at Rippon Lea and at Ellerslie, the Sargoods’ beach house at Mornington. In January, 1879, pregnant with her twelfth child, both Marian and her newborn son died as a result of the birth. Having merged his company with the firm of Martin, Butler and Nichol, Frederick Thomas resigned his parliamentary seat in March, 1880 and left for England with his surviving five sons and four daughters. His mother Emma was still living at Broad Green Lodge with her great-niece, Julia Tomlin (1847-1941), acting as a companion. Frederick Thomas married his second cousin Julia in December, 1880, and they had one child, Julia Charlotte (1882-1969).
Like her predecessor, Julia Sargood proved herself an impressive hostess, presiding over an expanding property and an increasingly public role. Rippon Lea was extended and altered from the early 1880s to 1897; the later 1880s work by architect Lloyd Tayler (1830-1900), and then under Taylor and his partner Frederick A. Fitts (1866-1902). The covered carriage entry (porte cochère), and the entry hall with its marble columns and fine stained-glass windows are from this period. The drawing room Conservatory was another addition completed by 1897, and where a more optimistic wedding breakfast display has been installed. Prominent local horticulturist William Sangster, who redeveloped Carlton Gardens and worked on Como House, was retained to create a more picturesque landscape.
Frederick Thomas re-entered parliament in November, 1882, representing South Yarra until March, 1901. During those years he served in a variety of roles, notably as the first Minister of Defence (1883-86), Commissioner for Water Supply (1884-86), and Leader of the Legislative Council (1888). He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in Volunteer Artillery, made a Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) in 1885, and knighted (KCMG) in 1890. Sir Frederick resigned his seat to run in the first federal election, becoming a Senator for Victoria. He was also the first serving Australian Senator to die, suddenly on January 2, 1903, while in New Zealand. Following a private memorial service held in the ballroom at Rippon Lea, his funeral, with full military honours, was one of the largest and most impressive ever seen in Melbourne. Sir Frederick was interred with Marian, their unnamed baby son, and their second son Norman Rippon Sargood (1862-76) at St. Kilda cemetery.
Lady Sargood was distraught following her husband’s death and decided to return to England with their daughter Julia Charlotte. She sold Rippon Lea in 1904 for a modest recession-era price of £20,000 (approximately £1.8 million today) to a syndicate headed by the twenty-second Premier of Victoria, Sir Thomas Bent (1838-1909). The appropriately named Bent was notorious for his unscrupulous land deals and electoral rigging. He never lived at Rippon Lea, but used it for entertaining, and began selling off parcels of the estate almost immediately in 1904 and 1905. Bent’s death prevented any further subdivisions of the property, and in December, 1910 Rippon Lea was bought by Benjamin Nathan (1864-1935), the son of a gold-rush immigrant.
Nathan had prospered as the co-founder of the South Melbourne Furnishing Company (1887), and after changing the name to Maples, the chain of furniture stores numbered thirteen in Victoria and two in Tasmania by the time of his death. Nathan moved to Rippon Lea with his wife Agnes and daughters, Louisa and Lorna. He shared Sir Frederick’s passion for the gardens, and in about 1929 Nathan built a large conservatory and fourteen glasshouses to accommodate his specimen collection. The same year, an entrance building off Hotham Street was added, designed by Percy A. Oakley and Stanley T. Parkes (who had recently completed The Lodge in Canberra). Louisa Nathan (1894-1972) married barrister Timothy Jones in January, 1921, and inherited Rippon Lea on the death of her father.
Mrs Jones set about modernising the home to suit the lifestyle of the couple and their four children, retaining architect, and later the MLA for Toorak, Robert Bell Hamilton (1892-1948) to supervise the work. From 1938 to 1939 the entrance hall was substantially altered, the dining room remodelled, modern bathrooms installed, electric radiators and gas heating supplemented open fires, the original ballroom was removed to make way for an in-ground swimming pool, and the billiard-room and museum converted into a new ballroom. In the 1940s more of the land was subdivided and sold, as well as the paddocks on the eastern boundary. The sale of 0.8 hectares (2 acres) of paddock at the southern tip of the Rippon Lea grounds to the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) in 1954 (to build television studios in time for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne) reduced the size of the land further, to its present 5.7 hectares (17 acres).
In March, 1963, Jones made public her intention to give Rippon Lea to the National Trust, subject to her right to live there during her lifetime. This precipitated an extraordinary act of bureaucratic interference and avarice when, just weeks later, the Federal Postmaster-General announced the compulsory acquisition of a further 1.7 hectares (5 acres) of the property, ostensibly because the ABC wanted more studios and access for trucks from Hotham Street. The area to be taken over included the lake, lookout tower, waterfall and grotto, all vital features, not only of the property’s landscape, but of its irrigation system, without which the gardens would be ruined. Public outcry ensued; Jones challenged the Government in the High Court and lost, but battled on for eleven years to preserve her own property for the people of Victoria. On her death, Rippon Lea passed to the National Trust with the condition that the Commonwealth Government return the compulsorily acquired land, which it did. Sir Henry Bolte (1908-90), Premier of Victoria throughout the struggle, observed of the intrepid Jones, “few people have worked so hard to give so much away.”
As a family home for most of its history, Rippon Lea has seen many weddings, including that of Clara Wordsworth Sargood (1864-1955), Sir Frederick and Marian’s eldest surviving daughter, to Henry Bunting Webster on November 29, 1889. The exhibition includes the wedding dress and shoes worn by Nancy Julia Sargood (1890-1974), daughter of Frederick George Sargood (1861-1932), the eldest surviving child of Sir Frederick and Marian. Nancy visited Rippon Lea as a child, until her parents moved to Wahroonga, NSW to live in a property known as Rippon Grange. She married John Graham Antill Pockley (1891-1918) on January 22, 1915 at St. Paul’s Church, Hornsby. Nancy’s first marriage was cut short by the tragedy that decimated a generation. Like so many promising and vital young men of his time, First Lieutenant Pockley was killed in action in World War I, at Villers-Bretonneux in northern France.
Some of this melancholy seems reflected in a display of six veils from the Trust collection evocatively arranged to float over the staircase with its black marble pillars and ornamental urn; in the evening, they take on a decidedly spectral quality. The three large pictorial windows depict ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, and have been attributed to the premier stained glass firm of the day, Ferguson & Urie (1853-99). An orange tree features prominently in the design, as a symbol of longevity, abundance and generosity. As an English immigrant, Sir Frederick would probably have also associated oranges with wealth and affluence. Orange blossom has long been a traditional flower for brides; from a plant that blooms and bears fruit at the same time, it became symbolic of virtue and fertility. If fresh flowers were not available, or too costly, often wax replicas were used as a bridal headdress, two of which are on display.
In terms of shaping fashion trends, designers draw on numerous influences, including those within popular culture. Widely seen filmic and television narratives can also play a part in determining wedding fashion, and filter down to bridal salons. Two dresses worn by singer and actress Kylie Minogue during her television career will be fondly recalled by many viewers. When ‘Charlene Mitchell’ married ‘Scott Robinson’ (Jason Donovan) in Neighbours (1987) it was watched by a global audience of millions. The fussy blush pink gown with satin rosettes by Jocelyn Amanda Creed has all the 1980s hallmarks: puffed sleeves, a sweetheart neckline, net panels, and a dropped waist. Comedy duo Jane Turner and Gina Riley invited Minogue to guest star in season three of their series Kath & Kim in 2004 as ‘Epponnee-Rae Craig’ where she gleefully parodied her previous soap opera incarnation in a riotous polyester and lace ‘mullet dress’, thigh-high white boots, and huge hair dotted with baby’s-breath (as Charlene’s was). The cast of the popular series have their own association with the venue, as parts of the feature film Kath & Kimderella (Ted Emery, 2012) were shot at Rippon Lea.
Designer John Bright founded Cosprop in 1965 as a resource to assist film and television industry professionals in realising their creative aims. The firm specialises in period costumes for hire, also employing in-house costumiers to make new ensembles to serve a particular designer’s brief. More recently, Cosprop has branched out into lending its costumes to themed exhibitions such as this, and has contributed eleven outfits to the show. Bright shared the Academy Award for Best Costume Design with his long-term collaborator Jenny Beaven for their work on A Room With A View (James Ivory, 1985). The duo has been nominated for the Oscar a further five times, including for their work on Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995). The wedding ensembles worn by Kate Winslet as ‘Marianne Dashwood’ and Alan Rickman as ‘Colonel Christopher Brandon’ seen briefly at the end of the film can be enjoyed in more detail here.
Bright also did the costumes for Twelfth Night (Sir Trevor Nunn, 1996), and the pink dress of silk and self-figured satin worn by Helena Bonham-Carter as ‘Olivia’ in the Shakespeare adaptation is also included. Another gown worn by Bonham-Carter, this time playing ‘Elizabeth Lavenza’, the doomed bride of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Sir Kenneth Branagh, 1994), is topped by an oversize paper wig by Cristina Re. Designed by James Acheson, a three-time Academy Award winner for Best Costume Design, the two-piece dress reflects the fashions of the 1770s. It comprises a gown and petticoat of cream moiré silk, with the attached stomacher and the front borders of the skirt richly embroidered with stylised foliage motifs in metallic thread. Other wedding dresses from literary adaptations include The House of the Spirits (Bille August, 1993), Daniel Deronda (Tom Hooper, 2002), Madame Bovary (Tim Fywell, 2000), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), and Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996). The British television series The House of Eliott (1991-94) is centred on two sisters in 1920s London who establish a dressmaking business and eventually launch their own fashion house. Series costume designer Joan Wadge came up with a demure wedding gown with a beaded ‘Juliet cap’ for actress Louise Lombard playing ‘Evangeline Eliott’.
The tradition of the white wedding dress, instituted by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840 was, for a long time, an option only for the wealthy. The relative expense of the wedding dress often resulted in more versatile elements being factored into the design to extend its usefulness, or it might be reused within a family. Many brides still chose a coloured dress, which could then be worn again for formal or evening wear. The exhibition contains an example of both circumstances, with a dress of bright blue silk taffeta worn by Margaret Hadden in 1866 and then by her daughter Rebecca Elizabeth Graham in 1896. It was remodelled, with the wide oval crinoline of the 1860s cut down to make a gored skirt, and the excess fabric repurposed to form the large balloon sleeves fashionable in the late 1890s. Other coloured dresses seem to have been more a matter of personal taste, like one chosen by Jane Louise Sanderson in 1875 of lilac striped silk taffeta. Lilac was an acceptable shade for half-mourning, but there is no evidence to suggest any deaths in Sanderson’s family at that time. She must simply have liked the colour, which extends in playful ruffles down the skirt and in bands around the sleeves.
The Japanese-Australian designer Akira Isogawa is represented by six dresses and a show-room prototype, the largest grouping from any fashion house. Coming from a non-Western background, but steeped in the idea of the ritual garment, Isogawa makes a distinctive contribution to bridal fashion, commenting, “My ideal for bridal design is that you don’t have to become someone else on your wedding day”. He is certainly in favour of the coloured wedding dress, “I attract a woman with a very strong sense of her personal style. It’s terrible to say it but some brides feel like white is a bit wimpy and they look more beautiful, more forceful in colour”.
Whereas four of Isogawa’s contributions fall within in the more expected tonal palette, Strapless Silk Organza Dress (2011) is dark purple and embroidered with botanical motifs that reference antique kimono prints. The vivid red Spiral Shibori Strapless Gown (2009) has tightly bunched hand-sewn spiral shibori knots along the bust-line, and gold embroidery interspersed with large flowers cascading down one side. Regardless of the hue, Isogawa’s overall design philosophy prevails, “My dresses are always subverting tradition. Sometimes I will deliberately choose a fabric that has a crushed appearance and this destroys the idea of the pristine bride”.
Cristina Re, whose firm specialises in fine stationery and lifestyle goods, has provided floral installations and head-dresses to accessorise many of the outfits. For the entrance hall, she has created a witty life-size Paper Couture Dress (2014) using materials from her range, thus insuring the scope of the exhibition conforms to the traditional rhyme: old, new, borrowed, blue (though the ‘silver sixpence in her shoe’ was not in evidence). Other dresses on display come from design houses both past and present such as Mariana Hardwick, Gwendolynne (with a headband and veil by Richard Nylon), Doake & Beattie, La Petite, Robert Fritzlaff, Lilium, Tedd Dunn, and Comtesse.
Love, Desire & Riches – The Fashion of Weddings, Rippon Lea House & Gardens, 192 Hotham Street, Elsternwick (VIC) – ripponleaestate.com.au. Historical background on the Rippon Lea Estate is partially derived from The Story of Rippon Lea (1995) by Mary Ryllis Clark and Dr. Celestia Sagazio, from The National Trust (VIC).
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an inceasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.
Editor’s note: Due to a change in editorial direction this will be the last appearance of Melburnin’ & ACTease. Simon Gregg was the original writer of the Melburnin’ column (2005 to 2008). It was rested until Courtney Symes took over in May, 2010. When Courtney moved to Canberra and began contributing ACTease, feature writer Inga Walton commenced working on Melburnin’ in February, 2013. Both Inga and Courtney will continue to write feature editorials for Trouble on a regular basis.