Upon first look, it may be easy to misjudge some of the dresses lining the rooms at the Ben Ferrel Platte County Museum. But despite their appearances, all were worn at least once to say “I do.”
“Some of the older gowns, they are not white. They are black,” says Lisa Wittmeyer, curator of the Ben Ferrel Platte County Museum in Platte City, Missouri. “With Queen Victoria, it became popular after she wore white in the 1800s and of course that’s the standard today for most brides, but not all. You are able to see a slice of history and make comparisons to your own family events.”
The gowns are part of a multiroom “Weddings of Yesteryear” exhibit, open at the Ben Ferrel Platte County Museum through July 15. It includes wedding dresses from the 1800s through the 1960s and other wedding artifacts including handkerchiefs, veils and examples of wedding gifts.
“People like coming in and meandering between the rooms and reading the labels and learning about the weddings,” Wittmeyer says, “and sharing their own stories.”
All the artifacts have some connection to Platte County, and include different styles of dresses and a variety of wedding accessories. One blue dress was worn by a bride in the 1940s for a morning wedding with a breakfast reception, despite objections that it wasn’t traditional at the time, says Anne Jones, president of the Platte County Historical Society. The dress is on display at the museum.
“The lady that had it said, ‘Everyone told me I was crazy for having a blue dress, but I wanted to be different,’” Jones says. “I thought that was neat.”
Martha Brenner Noland, a longtime area resident, loaned her wedding dress from her 1946 wedding to Joseph “Bob” Noland to the exhibit. They were married at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in what is now Riverside, Missouri. She also loaned several family weddings photos and other pieces, and discovered she had connections to items donated by others.
“I think it’s the memories and the associations of where it was held and the people that attended,” Martha Noland says of the exhibit. “I think it brings back a lot of memories.”
Placards around the exhibit tell stories of artifacts and historical wedding traditions, including Tom Thumb weddings and shivarees.
“A shivaree was sort of a noise-making endeavor where the newlywed couple might be woken up in the middle of the night,” Wittmeyer says. “They would ring bells, bang pots, make as much noise as they could. The tradition varied depending on the area of the country. Sometimes, they put people in a wheel barrel and took them down the street.”
Cheri Lomas, head docent of the museum, gives tours and answers questions at the historic house-turned-museum. As a previous resident of England, she can compare the two cultures and wedding artifacts.
“The style of the dresses is different,” she says. “Some of the fabric, as well, I can’t believe they wore in this heat. How do you get married and have to wear all that? It’s so heavy and there are layers. I would never have gotten married in the summer in those days.”
Many of the dresses are also surprisingly small compared to modern day garments, Lomas says.
“When we were trying to put them on the bust, you couldn’t get the shoulders, or anything over,” she says. “The ladies were so narrow back them. I like all the history of the dresses. I look at it, and I like reading the details about who wore it. I just imagine the times.”
Despite the differences, there is a value that spans the centuries, Jones says.
“So many of the dresses are strapless now and bare, but they are still special,” Jones says. “The old and the new, they are all still special, no matter how much they’ve changed.”
Historically, the care taken to preserve garments is different in England and the United States, and many items she sees now are showing wear, Lomas says. She hopes to help share education on how to properly preserve historical items.
“There’s a silk dress that I absolutely love, and it was falling to bits. Maybe people didn’t realize it at the time so they just threw it in a box,” Lomas says. “... It would be nice to be able to keep them for the next 100 years, because I don’t think some of them will last another 100 years. I think it’s important for our young children to see what it was like. You can look on Google, but it’s nothing like the real thing.”
The “Weddings of Yesteryear” exhibit will be on display at the Ben Ferrel Platte County Museum, 220 Ferrel St. in Platte City, through July 15. The museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and will be open the first and third Saturdays of July from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The exhibit will culminate in an “old-fashioned wedding reception” at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 16, at the First Baptist Church in Platte City, 214 Ferrel St. There will be refreshments and Caroline Miller of Sedalia, Missouri, will speak about and show wedding gowns through the ages. The event is free and open to the public. Donations are accepted.
The temporary exhibit is an opportunity to reflect on the past and enjoy a bit of unique, local history, Jones says.
“This is something new. That fact makes it exciting,” she says. “The fact is that so many wedding gowns are just packed away and left for years and years and no one sees them. I think some family members are excited to see the gowns that their family has.”