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Wedding dress maker Melinda O'Donoghue spins dreams amid the dust of drought

By Jen Browning, Sunday March 15, 2020 - 08:39 EDT
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Melinda O'Donoghue has been making wedding dresses for more than 20 years. - ABC

On a property at Gurley, about 30 kilometres from Moree in north-western New South Wales, lives a real-life version of Cinderella's fairy godmother.

Surrounded by organza, sequins and lace in a beautiful country cottage, you'll find Melinda O'Donoghue.

In her bridal studio, a far cry from the dusty paddocks outside, Ms O'Donoghue has been making wedding dresses for more than two decades, and in that time has sent them around the world.

"It's really strange, I've often picked girls up at the airport in Moree from Sydney, Brisbane and Perth," she said of her clients.

"I've had one girl that's come here from England and one from America."

And if Ms O'Donoghue makes your dress, she will even travel to your wedding to ensure everything runs perfectly.

"Within reason," she added. "Probably the furthest I've driven is 10 hours. I have flown to Sydney as well.

"I have a theory that bridesmaids are usually too busy looking at themselves, and the mother of the bride is running round like a headless chook, and then the bride is left to get in her dress on her own, so it's good to have someone on hand that's neutral and can help get all that organised."

She's made about 300 dresses and has plenty of stories to go with each.

"My signature is buttons and loops on the back of dresses," she said.

"I haven't had too many bridezillas, but I've always said one day I'll write a book.

"I've had some extraordinary things happen on wedding days, from priests being three hours late, to dresses coming apart — not ones I've made, but bridesmaids — and all sorts of things.

"I always pack a sewing machine with me."

Tamworth woman Anna Hall had her wedding dress designed and made by Ms O'Donoghue.

"You can really tell that she just loves weddings and she lives and breathes them," Ms Hall said.

"She's so passionate, she's there with you along the whole journey.

"She travelled three-and-a-half hours each way, she dressed me, she pressed all the bridesmaids' dresses — she even made sure that my Dad was up to scratch, it really was amazing to have her there [at the wedding]."

The 'Everest' of dresses

When Catherine van der Veen contacted Ms O'Donoghue to make her couture wedding dress, she was living in Sydney and a $15,000 designer dress she fell in love with was well beyond her budget.

So with only the memory of the dress in her head, she booked a $600 flight to Moree and an appointment to meet Ms O'Donoghue.

"I found the whole thing a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have a piece of couture made by a classically trained seamstress, and the fact she lives on a property in the middle of nowhere just adds to the mystique of it," Ms van der Veen said.

"It was drought when I was having my dress made and it was such a dust bowl out there, but then you step into this room and it's just silk and lace and you just have this magical creature that is Melinda and she just transforms you into this incredible bride."

Ms van der Veen described the dress to Ms O'Donoghue and she was quickly on board.

"I went and spent $2,500 on a roll of silk and put it on a cattle truck to Moree," she said.

"I thought, what am I doing?

"But when it all came together and did what it was supposed to, it was just unbelievable — I don't think either of us could believe that she pulled it off."

Ms O'Donoghue said it was the biggest challenge of her career.

"I did have a few tears with that dress ... it ended up having 160 metres of boning shaped into the hem into these bands that twisted and curled, but we got there in the end."

Ms O'Donoghue even made her own wedding dress with the help of one of Australia's best designers.

"I was doing a little bit of work for Alex Perry and he helped me make my dress.

"I did some work experience with him at college and then I did a bit of work for him, but that was 25 years ago."

Dressmaker to be honoured with exhibition

In September, Ms O'Donoghue will be honoured with an exhibition of her bridal creations.

"It's a bit daunting ... the Moree Plains Gallery are having a 20-year retrospective exhibition of all my brides.

"I've done a bit of a callout to brides to see if they'd lend me back their dresses, and about 80 have offered them to me so far."

Ms Hall is one of the women on board.

"I think it's such a wonderful thing for Moree to be putting on, I was totally happy to lend my dress, I just loved the thought of it," she said.

"The more people that can see her talent the better."

You will find Ms van der Veen's extravagant creation there as well.

"When Melinda put the call out I was thrilled, because it's a chance to be seen again and to come out of its box," she said.

"It's such a tribute to Melinda as well — a lifetime of work and she's brought so much joy to so many people.

"I think she embodies everything that is amazing about rural women, who just work so hard, have so much talent and bring something to the nation, not just their own communities."

When she's not making wedding dresses, Ms O'Donoghue teaches at the local TAFE; Moree is the last campus in country New South Wales to offer fashion and textiles.

"We're so lucky ... we are very determined to keep the sewing room open here in Moree," she said.

"Schools are starting to get back to sewing, which is really nice to see because there was about a decade there when it died a bit."


© ABC 2020

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