When Edwin Morgan returned from World War Two set on marrying girl-next-door Betty, she thought it would be too costly to turn up in a new white dress. However, it transpired that one of Edwin’s souvenirs from the conflict was just perfect to fashion a beautiful outfit from. So she became one of the women who put a wartime parachute to a new, much more attractive use.
World War Two brought shortages of silk and nylon to most countries, as production was geared towards military needs and, in the case of silk, the raw materials were found in areas under the control of Japan. This made the traditional wedding gown difficult to produce, with fabrics for dresses costing a pretty penny. But some brides-to-be cleverly turned those military supplies into sources for their wedding garments.
As the war drew to a close, the disruption that it had caused continued. Shortages remained in effect for some time, in fact, and most people had to watch their cash because prices had gone up. This was particularly noticeable with regards to fabric, which cost so much that many couldn’t buy it, leaving them with the thorny problem of how they could scratch together a dress for the big day.
Consequently, those who wished to wed in white had to figure out where they could get some material from. One source was available to some of them, however: a piece of war material that had often been created from silk or sometimes nylon. Yes, they were able to make their bridal dresses from parachutes.
Indeed, the idea of making wedding dresses from parachutes had been around for a while by the end of the war. For example, newspapers had been printing stories about resourceful women who re-used even the parachutes that their own spouses had drifted to Earth under. And this gave the dresses an added layer of meaning.
Now, not only could brides don a shimmering gown made of silk, but they could also show the world something more. The dresses symbolized their desire to acknowledge their new husbands’ actions during the war. It should be noted, though, that not all of the parachutes had originally belonged to the military men who’d brought them home.
This was true of the parachute that would become the material for Betty Morgan’s dress. Husband-to-be Edwin had sent the parachute back to the U.S. as a souvenir of the conflict in Europe. He’d taken it from a German plane that he and some other servicemen had dragged from a burning hangar.
On his return, Edwin wanted to settle down. In a video shot by the Columbus Museum of Art, there’s a twinkle in Edwin’s eye as Betty explains that he was much sought after by the ladies. But there was only one girl for him: Edwin knew he would marry the one from across the street.
Betty’s mother-in-law had suggested to her that she might make a dress from Edwin’s souvenir, in fact. After all, silk was still very expensive at that time. But Betty felt skeptical about the idea at first. Although the parachute made for an impressive sight, it was hard to imagine how this military article could ever make a pretty dress.
Nonetheless, Betty did take the parachute to a tailor, who told her that yes, he could make it look nice for her. He subsequently worked his magic on the ’chute, cutting out enough material to make it into a wonderful gown for her. On top of that, the cost delighted Betty as well.
That’s because the bill only came to $18. Not bad for a gown that was truly unique. And Betty could guarantee that, because part of the material still displayed the swastika stamp that had adorned the parachute. Furthermore, closer inspection would even reveal the name of the pilot to whom it had once belonged.
So the ’chute found a use that Edwin hadn’t even considered when he’d sent it back from Germany. He told Columbus Museum of Art, “We never dreamed at the time I took it that it would ever be a wedding gown.” But it did become one, which Betty kept throughout her marriage, allowing the outfit to be shown in an exhibition organized by The Ohio State University in 2008.
Naturally, the souvenirs that some guys brought home had included their own parachutes. Furthermore, some of the items in question had even allowed these men to escape death. This was the case for Temple Leslie Bourland, for instance, who had leaped from a plane as it flew above Germany. He had been serving as a radio operator out of France when his plane was damaged in Operation Varsity at the start of 1945.
If jumping out of a plane hadn’t been frightening enough, Bourland then faced enemy fire as he descended, which left his parachute full of holes. He and a buddy subsequently used the ’chute to keep the chill off as they hid from enemy troops until they were eventually rescued. And Bourland made sure to hang on to it when he went home.
Back in the U.S., Bourland met Rosalie Hierholzer, who at the time resided in San Antonio, Texas. On one of his visits to see Hierholzer, Bourland took along some of the things that he’d brought back from the war. Among them was his slightly the worse-for-wear parachute, which caught the eye of Hierholzer’s aunt.
Hierholzer’s aunt, Lora, recognized the parachute as perfect wedding gown material, so she volunteered to whip up an outfit for Hierholzer to be married to Bourland in. And she did a fine job, with details such as seed pearls and little buttons adorning a dress with a full skirt, the train of which betrays its origins due to the military seams still running through it.
When he’d fought in the skies over Europe, Bourland cannot have imagined that one day his bride would wear his parachute with pride. But indeed she did, and the Bourlands were to remain married until “Les” passed away in 2003. Moreover, they’re still together today, having been buried side by side after Rosalie’s own passing.
Of course, not everyone was shot down in a plane, or served as a parachutist, or found a German aircraft full of parachutes as Edwin Morgan had. Serviceman Ted Zimmerman wouldn’t let any of that prevent him from giving his bride the wedding dress of her dreams, though.
Having fallen for a woman named Jackie in Brussels, Zimmerman found that one thing led to another, and after a year they resolved to be wed. However, a problem stood in their way: Jackie wasn’t able to acquire material for a gown for love nor money. But Zimmerman wasn’t going to let anything stop his wedding from being perfect.
Although not himself a parachutist, he did know some guys in such a squadron. And being a resourceful fellow, Zimmerman had the perfect solution. He told Idaho TV station KTVB in 2016, “I had a bottle of whiskey with me, and I presented it to them and said, ‘Can you help me?’ They looked around and looked around and said, ‘Yes, we do have a combat parachute.’”
So Jackie tripped down the aisle all in white, and it was the start of an enduring marriage. In 2016 they were to celebrate 70 years together in wedlock. And Jackie’s family would get good use of the dress as well. Before it was finally donated to New Orleans’ National WWII Museum, her sister and her daughter would each be married in it.
Another young woman wowed by a serviceman at around the same time was Joyce Adney. Meeting trainee radarman Adrien Reynolds at a Utah State University dance changed her life for good, and she knew it straight away. “He walked me home, and I went in and told my roommate I had met the man I was going to marry,” she recalled when interviewed for the National WWII Museum’s website in 2013.
Reynolds subsequently took part in the invasion of Saipan, a Pacific island, in June 1944. When the fighting had died down, he was ordered to explore some caves there, which it turned out contained a stock of pristine parachutes. Reynolds then shipped one of them back home for Adney to look after.
Once Reynolds had returned to the U.S. and popped the big question, Adney knew what she could do with the parachute. Her mom fashioned a dress from it, using measurements that Adney took with bits of string. So it was in the finest Japanese silk that Adney walked down the aisle and into a lifelong marriage.
Naturally, it wasn’t just American women who could make use of parachute silk. Myrtille Delassus was a French girl of 17 when German troops marched into her town of Merville. And she endured a miserable few years under their occupation before the Allies came to liberate the town after D-Day.
One of those soldiers, Joseph Bilodeau, showed a generous spirit, often handing things to Madame Cocque, who was the proprietor of a dress shop opposite his quarters in Merville. Mme. Cocque subsequently decided to give Bilodeau a thank-you dinner, but she didn’t want to start tongues wagging by having just him over to eat. As a result, she asked her employee, Delassus, to dine with them as well.
Romance soon bloomed, in fact, and Bilodeau and Delassus tied the knot after the war. Moreover, Mme. Cocque’s shop had the honor of dressing the bride. The seamstress’ employees used the silk of a parachute to sew a beautiful, classic-shaped gown that would eventually go on display at the National WWII Museum.
Meanwhile, the 489th Bomb Group Museum in Halesworth in the U.K. also displays a rare delight, thanks to Jack McMullen and his wife Helen. Jack had served as a bomber pilot out of the airbase at Halesworth during the war. He and Helen traveled back there in 1996, which inspired her to give the museum her parachute wedding dress.
Jack’s mom, another Helen, stitched the dress together, and she was clearly quite the seamstress. The gown shows incredible attention to detail, in fact, with masses of buttons that the younger Helen worked on, too, as well as lace trimmings and elaborate skirts. Jack’s mother even managed to incorporate the cords from the parachute, included as a tribute to the clothing’s origins.
Not everyone made their dress out of silk, of course. Lilli Lax, for example, had had a lifelong dream of strolling down the aisle in white. But it seemed like that ambition would prove impossible to realize when she mentioned it to her fiancé Ludwig Friedman. That’s because at the time they were inhabitants of a displaced persons camp after the war.
They lived in the camp because they had recently been liberated from the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Both had suffered a great deal, with Lax losing all the men in her family. So marriage represented for her an opportunity to create a normal life. Consequently, Friedman put a plan into action.
Friedman exchanged some cigarettes and coffee powder in return for a rayon parachute from a man who’d served in the Luftwaffe. Another trade by Lax secured the services of someone to make the outfit, and she finally had her dream dress. Moreover, the newly named Lilly Friedman subsequently shared her gown with other women. In the end, at least 17 additional brides married in white thanks to her.
When Major Claude Hensinger landed on the ground in China in 1944, the parachute he used was made from nylon, not rayon or silk. Nonetheless, it would eventually come in handy at his wedding. But first he used it to abandon his burning plane after bombing Yowata in Japan. Not too much worse for wear after a night in the open, Hensinger would bring the ’chute back to the U.S. with him the next day.
On his return to the homeland, Hensinger started to see a woman named Ruth. A year’s courting followed before he decided to go down on one knee. But curiously, he didn’t propose in the usual way by offering a ring. Instead, he pushed forward the ’chute. According to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Hensinger told Ruth, “This is the parachute that saved my life. I want you to make a wedding gown out of it.”
Ruth went ahead and had her dream dress made, based on a gown featured in Gone with the Wind. She herself sewed the garment’s lower section, employing the parachute’s cords to fix the shape, with a train behind. However, the veil and bodice needed a skilled seamstress’ touch.
Before their marriage at Neffs Luther Church, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1947, Hensinger hadn’t laid eyes on the dress. Ruth revealed, “My husband didn’t see the gown until I walked down the aisle.” But apparently he was very pleased with the outcome, which later was donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
When Maurice Webb jumped out of his Mosquito plane and ended up in a field in France, he likely couldn’t have imagined what would become of his parachute. Webb’s plane had caught fire during a raid on shipping in the Gironde estuary, and the pilot couldn’t find anywhere safe to land it.
In Brittany, French farmers looked after Webb until G.I.s turned up. He then went home to England, but Webb didn’t ever forget the kindness he’d been shown by those French civilians. As it turns out, he was himself to become a farmer, since it was his family’s business.
A long time after hostilities had ceased, Webb would go back to Brittany with his son. There he met with the man who’d looked after him following his landing. And the daughter of the farmer had a surprising gift for Webb. She handed him some silk. It had come from his parachute, which, like so many others, had furnished the material for a beautiful wedding gown.
These days, of course, making a wedding dress by hand is less common. However, if you wanted to give it a try, authentic patterns are readily available online. Real wartime parachutes, though, might well prove a lot harder to source – but if you try your luck on eBay, one might land in your lap.