Image: Kirby Moore with her UNE Honours project, a reconstructed 1884 gown, displaying in Martindale Hall in South Australia. 

A creative UNE Honours project has reclaimed a woman missing from the history books – and her grand marital home in country South Australia.

Student Kirby Moore stitched together her love of sewing and history to reconstruct the wedding gown of Martindale Hall’s first lady of the house, Annie Bowman, in what was a painstaking research effort.

All Kirby originally had to work from was the 1884 wedding portrait of Annie and Edmund Bowman Junior. But her sleuthing soon uncovered a treasure trove of historic fashions, fashion plates, patterns and publications, including Annie’s actual dresses donated to the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) by a relative in the 1970s.

And it all started with a penchant for the classic Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“I love that film and Martindale, outside Mintaro, was made famous as the girls’ boarding school,” said Kirby, who lives in nearby Burra. “I just had to visit, and that’s when I came across the story of Annie.”

Edmund had built the 32-room home in 1879-80 and he and Annie lived there together after their wedding. They moved out all their belongings when prominent grazier and politician William Mortlock bought the property for his wife Rosye in 1891. So Edmund and Annie’s presence at Martindale, which is now a manor-museum open to the public, is minimal.

Refashioning Annie’s bridal gown from scratch gave Kirby – who has an undergraduate degree in costume design – fascinating insights into 1880s-era dress styles and construction methods. The result is both a beautiful tribute to Annie and an act of conservation.

“I wanted it to be an authentic reconstruction and AGSA kindly enabled me to measure Annie’s dresses, so I could make the gown to her actual size. In addition to the main skirt and bodice, I also made all the undergarments. Annie’s proportions were such that her silhouette could not be supported by a modern mannequin, so I had to make that, too.”

There were other challenges. Because she could not see the back of the dress in the photograph, Kirby had to make an educated guess as to its design, based on her extensive research.

“The gown is not 100% authentic, but I hope it brings this missing piece of history back to the rural community where it belongs,” she said.

And, for the record, the Mortlocks died without an heir and left Martindale Hall to the South Australian Government. Kirby installed the new gown for permanent display on January 2 – exactly 140 years to the day since Annie and Edmund were wed.