Browsing the aisles

A prestigious wedding gown display gives Sheriden Rhodes the perfect reason to discover a rich region.

When Kate Middleton married Prince William earlier this year, let's face it, no one gave a damn what the handsome young heir to the throne wore.

It seemed the world's focus was on the 29-year-old bride's wedding dress.

Typically the biggest secret of one's big day, there is something wonderful and enigmatic about wedding dresses. Some brides have fantasised their whole life about the dress they will wear.

So it's probably not that surprising that on a sunny midweek afternoon, scores of women (and the odd male) are meandering through the Bendigo Art Gallery in huddles of twos and threes taking in every fascinating detail of the 41 wonderful gowns that travelled from England by sea for the world premiere of The White Wedding Dress: Two Hundred Years of Wedding Fashions.

The highly anticipated international exhibition from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London continues the gallery's design theme set in 2009 with the blockbuster fashion exhibition The Golden Age of Couture, also borrowed from the V&A and which drew 75,000 visitors and contributed more than $9 million to Bendigo's economy.

Drawing on the V&A's exceptional collection of wedding gowns from the early 1800s to the present day, the exhibition explores the captivating history of the wedding dress. The curator of the art gallery, Tansy Curtin, who knows everything about the 68 outfits on display, right down to the most intricate detail, says what is most surprising is how little wedding fashion has changed over the past 200 years. "White remains the predominant choice for wedding dresses today and of course many contemporary wedding dresses take inspiration from Victorian fashion with their large crinoline-like shapes, lace veils and embellishment."

It's also intriguing to learn that the use of white in wedding fashions is relatively new, beginning in the 19th century and asserting its place in 1840, when Queen Victoria chose white for her wedding to Prince Albert.

The exhibition encompasses historical bridal dresses, veils, corsetry, millinery, a collection of covetable shoes, and other accessories including elaborate headpieces. The gowns, veils and millinery featured are by couturiers and designers including Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, Charles James, Zandra Rhodes, John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Vera Wang, Christian Lacroix, Lanvin, Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones.

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Also included are lavish gowns worn by celebrities Dita Von Teese and Gwen Stefani. A specially curated local component titled The Australian Aesthetic, selected by Curtin and gallery director Karen Quinlan, features historic gowns and contemporary designs by couturiers including Toni Maticevski, Gwendolynne Burkin, Susan Dimasi and Chantal McDonald of MaterialByProduct, Akira Isogawa, and Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales of Romance Was Born.

The Australian section covers the same period as the international exhibition, with more emphasis on contemporary catwalk wedding couture. Interestingly, it also includes the exhibit's oldest dress - first worn in England in 1793 and then remodelled and worn again in 1822.

One of Curtin's favourite dresses is the first in the international exhibition, worn by Eliza Larken in 1828. It is a dress that remained in the same family for more than 170 years before being acquired by the V&A last year.

"To have that kind of connection to your forebears would be wonderful," she says.

She also has a soft spot for a wonderful 1914 dress designed by Aida Woolf.

"It's constructed of layers of silk satin and beaded lace and embraces the changing mood in society of the times," she says. Outside the gallery, wedding fever is running high on the streets of Bendigo, with many shop windows, including thrift stores, dressed with mannequins wearing wedding gowns.

There are also wedding-themed dinners at Borchelli Ristorante opposite the gallery and a stunning sequence of ceramic wedding dresses by Bendigo artist Suzie O'Shea displayed in various locations around the city.

To soak up the history, art and culture of the surrounding goldfields region around Bendigo, make a long weekend of it, as I did with a three-day mother-and-daughter expedition.

We start at Castlemaine, meandering along country roads via the tiny historic hamlet of Newstead, where the Dig Cafe dishes up excellent coffee and a tasty scrambled eggs with parmesan dish.

Afterwards we wander over to The Red Store, in the town's original 1800s general store, with its affordable mix of collectables displayed on original Baltic pine shelving and counters before pushing on to Maldon, one of the first notable towns listed by the National Trust.

As we walk along Maldon's historic streets, burly men unload sacks of grain from an open-top truck.

For lunch we stop at Castlemaine's Public Inn, which showcases terrific local food.

We tuck into a local tasting plate, then orecchiette with peas, mint and truffled pecorino. An excellent Harcourt Bress chardonnay is served from the barrel to glass.

We linger by the open fire longer than planned, before eventually manoeuvring ourselves out of the comfortable armchairs and on to a cleverly designed new bush retreat in nearby Chewton, where we get the wood stove firing before returning to town for yet another excellent meal at The Good Table.

The next morning it is off to Bendigo for the exhibit. We tuck into croissants from Castlemaine's Apple Annie's and lattes from Coffee Basics.

Bendigo is a truly beautiful city with wide streets and historical buildings. While there, be sure to browse the interesting collectables and curiosity shops opposite the gallery along View Street and enjoy a glass of vino or two from the Bendigo region with the locals at the Wine Bank before dining at either The Dispensary or the new French bistro, Bouchan.

If time is short, at least stop for coffee at the Good Bean Cafe, enjoying the warm welcome from the happy staff.

You could head straight back down the Calder Freeway or catch the train and be back in Melbourne before you know it but that would be more the pity.

Instead, detour via Heathcote where you can visit the Cellar and Store, with its picturesque courtyard and the cellar doors of Heathcote Estate and Heathcote Winery, all of which are in High Street. But be sure to save room for one last, leisurely lunch at The Redesdale.

I'm grateful that a bunch of wedding dresses has brought us to a region crammed with good food, wine, history and culture. I'm also secretly grateful I don't have to squeeze myself into a wedding dress any time soon because after being plied with the area's riches, that would definitely be a problem. Brides be warned.

Sheriden Rhodes travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Goldfields Tourism.

FAST FACTS

CASTLEMAINE is a 90-minute drive from Melbourne via the Calder Freeway (A79), while Bendigo is two hours' drive. From Castlemaine, Newstead is a 15-minute drive along the Pyrenees Highway, while Maldon is another 15 minutes' drive along Maldon-Newstead Road. Heathcote is a 40-minute drive from Bendigo via the McIvor Highway, while Redesdale is 20 minutes from Heathcote. Alternatively, Bendigo and Castlemaine are served by regular V/Line rail services; phone 13 61 96, see vline.com.au.

Staying there

Bring out your inner bushie at the eco-friendly Riversdale Retreat at Chewtown, just outside Castlemaine. Shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival Awards last year, this bush retreat is an example of stylish architecture on a budget. Shoes aren't to be worn inside, so BYO slippers. Sleeps three. From $195 midweek for two people. See riversdaleretreat.com.au.

New York meets Bendigo in the lofty City Warehouse Apartment in the heart of Bendigo's art and cultural precinct in one of the city's landmark buildings, a short walk from the Bendigo Art Gallery, the Wine Bank on View and more. Be warned: there are lots of stairs and no lift. Sleeps four. From $270 a night. See citywarehouse apartment.com.au.

Being there

The White Wedding Dress exhibition will be on display at Bendigo Art Gallery until November 6. Admission costs: $20 adults; $16 concession; family $48 (two adults and two children); secondary and primary students $10 and $5. The gallery's next major exhibition, Grace Kelly: Style Icon, opens in February. 42 View Street; open daily 10am-5pm; phone 5434 6088; see bendigoartgallery.com.au.

Eating there

The Dig Cafe, 15 Lyons Street, Newstead; phone 5476 2744; see digcafe.com.au.

Public Inn; 165 Barker Street, Castlemaine; phone 5472 3568; see publicinn.com.au.

Apple Annie's, 31 Templeton Street, Castlemaine; 5472 5311; see appleannies.com.au.

Coffee Basics, 1 Halford Street, Castlemaine; phone 5470 6270; see coffeebasics.com.au.

Old Green Bean, 179 Lyttleton Terrace, Bendigo, phone 5444 3173; see oldgreenbean.com.au.

Bouchon, 61 High Street, Bendigo; phone 5444 5272; see bouchonbendigo.com.au.

The Dispensary Enoteca, 9 Chancery Lane, Bendigo; phone 5444 5885; see thedispendaryenoteca.com.

The Redesdale, 2640 Kyneton-Heathcote Road, Redesdale; phone 5425 3111; see theredesdale.com.au.

For more information see visitgoldfields.com.au.

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