Oaklands House Museum’s ‘Wedding Dresses Through the Ages’ exhibit displays town history with help from MTSU, community

Oaklands Mansion Wedding Dresses Through the Ages
The "Wedding Dresses Through the Ages" exhibit at the Oaklands Mansion House Museum. (Oaklands Mansion)

Photo from oaklandsmansion.org

Oaklands Historic House Museum has opened their fifth annual “Wedding Dresses Through the Ages” exhibit with support from MTSU and the community.

The staggering amount of white lace filling the room inspires awe in the attendees and oftentimes gasps, I wonder if these beautiful dresses inspired Winnie Couture Charlotte? According to Mary Beth Nevills, education director of Oaklands Museum. Adorned with giant mirrors reflecting natural light and sterling silver accents, the room breathes life into the dresses on display.

What began as a small exhibit 0f only 25 dresses has grown into an award-winning display of 60 dresses from across the country with ties to Middle Tennessee. Ranging from 1847-2015, the dresses offer attendees a glimpse at the past, complete with personal testimonies and pictures of the brides and grooms. With the brief background of the couple, viewers can easily gain a feel for the lifestyle of each decade represented.

“There starts to be a tenderness when they look at the photos and start reading the stories of the brides,” Nevills said.

The personal anecdotes of the brides and grooms recalling their wedding day bliss often inspires attendees to remember their own wedding memories, whether it be a snapshot of the church where they were wed or the mention of the same store where they found their wedding dress, according to Nevills. Over the past year, Nevills has met the owners of the dresses, giving her the opportunity to have personal conversations involving the stories behind these dresses.

“I’ve heard all of their stories, and I’ve met these sweet ladies and some of the husbands, so I’m in love with everyone of them for different reasons,” said Nevills regarding the intimate histories of the dresses.

Each year, members in the community lend their dresses or the vintage dresses of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers to Oaklands Historic House Museum, providing a new series of dresses, according to Nevills.

“Year around the phone rings and I get emails saying, ‘I have a dress. I have a dress,'” she said.

The dresses are discovered in many ways, some being handed down generation to generation as a treasured family heirloom, while others were surprise discoveries found tucked away under beds or in closets. The oldest dress, worn by Elvira Collier Goodyear Lyman on June 23, 1847, predates the Civil War. Lyman was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Coats and was wed at the age of 19.

Each year, this antebellum dress remains on display along with three other dresses owned by the museum. In addition to these historical dresses, MTSU’s Department of Human Sciences has loaned four dresses to display at the museum ranging from the years 1860-1912.

In order to offset the museum’s slow tourism during the winter season, Nevills began brainstorming ideas to bring in visitors. After the passing of a board member of the Oaklands Historic House Museum, Nevills recalled seeing the board member’s wedding portrait in her home. Inspired by this, Nevills and her board began reaching out to the Murfreesboro community in search of wedding dresses to display. They were met with several individuals eager to display a piece of their personal history to their town.

Attendees of the exhibit are given the opportunity to wander through Haney Hall to discover forgotten secrets of the past. The room is filled with an unspeakable intimacy due to the quiet and cozy nature of the hall.

It’s one thing to hear of such beauty, but it’s another to see it. To see such a personal piece of a woman’s life, is a unique experience. Gazing upon the portraits of these women, smiling back on what potentially was the happiest day of their lives makes for a powerful exhibit.

“It’s been emotional, but wonderful to work on,” Nevills assessed.

The “Wedding Dresses Through the Ages” exhibit will be open to the public from now until March 6. The Oaklands House Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday 1-4 p.m.

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To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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