Classic. Elegant. Ladylike. These are some of the words used to describe the timeless style of fashion entrepreneur Mariana Hardwick and the eponymous bridal couture house she established all those years ago. Now, in sweet timing with the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival, a retrospective offers a fascinating insight into Hardwick’s work over the past 30 years.

The exhibition of wedding dresses and a short documentary, including interviews with some of the designers who worked with Hardwick, such as Megan Park and Lisa Gorman, provide a fascinating snapshot of her evolution as a fashion entrepreneur, not to mention the shifting tastes in bridal wear from the 1970s onwards.

“The aim of the retrospective is to celebrate the work Mariana has done and to appreciate the dressmakers – the amount of skill and expertise that goes into dressmaking,” says daughter-in-law Rebekah Hardwick, who came up with the idea of the exhibition. She was appointed managing director when Mariana stepped back from the business 12 months ago.

When Rebekah made a public appeal for items for the retrospective, she was overwhelmed by the number of women who came forward with their much-loved wedding dresses, photos and personal stories.

“I’m really pleased that Bec and Anneliese [Bridgman, in-house creative director] took the initiative because I never would have done it,” says Mariana. “Unfortunately you never anticipate to collect or maintain an archive at all, but because people keep their wedding dresses. We’ve been fortunate.”

The exhibition is staged on the upper floor of the Mariana Hardwick atelier. The soaring industrial ceilings and polished concrete floors, juxtapose the palatial salon with high-backed white chairs, three-stand mirrors and a broad central staircase, making it the kind of space where you can imagine ethereal wedding fantasies taking flight.

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Ranging from a 1970s “hippy” antique-lace skirt to a 90s strapless sheath dress in blush-pink with a full overskirt and train, to a 2010 vintage-inspired tulle gown, the exhibition traces a vast array of stylistic intonations and eras, working to evoke the incredible impact Hardwick has had over her career. As she explains, there wasn’t much diversity in the way of bridal wear when she started her first retail outlet, The Garb in Toorak in the 1970s. The breakthrough came with her revelation that bridal wear could be conceived as a fashion item.

The hippy skirt, which harks from The Garb, is made from an antique lace table cloth, ribbons, a recognisable doily and skin-toned satin. The owner writes that she wore it again and again, because it was so unique and beautiful, adding, “I don’t have any photos of my wedding day, which is a shame.”

Jill Rodda, whose sister owned the hippy skirt, loved the wedding outfit so much that she also went looking at The Garb. She remembers it as a tiny shop, overflowing with lace and trinkets and people. Rodda’s dress is on display too and she’s showing it to her bemused daughter when we visit.

The dress was made from tulle and crocheted lace, with a bodice embellished with ribbons and applique. Fingering a blemished sleeve, she reflects, “I don’t remember the stains, perhaps it’s part of the ageing, it was made from antique curtains so the fabric was old already.”

A different creature altogether is a pristine, white 1988 wedding gown of fine silk with a dipped neckline, pleated sleeves and corded lace applique. This later gown reflects the evolution of Hardwick’s direction and the sophistication of the Mariana Hardwick label, established in 1982. Standing before the dress, I hear an excited voice: “There it is, that’s mine!” It’s the dress’s owner, Doris Pozzi, and she’s delighted to share her story.

After her wedding, Pozzi had the dress properly dry-cleaned and stored in a wedding box. When she saw the ad for the retrospective, she asked her daughter to help her reopen the box. “I was very nervous, because I hadn’t looked at it for 20 years.”

Suffice to say, she was thrilled when the dress emerged in its full, swan-like glory. She doesn’t know if the dress still fits, but is hopeful. “I want to try it on again when the exhibition is over,” she smiles.

The Mariana Hardwick Restrospective opens today and runs until March 22 from 11am to 4pm daily.

Mariana Hardwick Retrospective
459–475 Sydney Road, Brunswick