Access to silk was very limited during World War II as most of the world’s supply at the time came from China and Japan. The available supplies of silk and nylon were needed for military use, to make parachutes and other essentials for the war effort. This made it difficult for the increasing numbers of war brides to find material for their wedding dresses. Many brides opted to borrow gowns from friends and family, but another option became popular among resourceful war brides: recycling used parachutes into beautiful new wedding gowns!
The parachutes were generally made of white or cream silk or nylon, and were considered unfit for reuse if damaged or after ocean landings. Once they were no longer of military usage, they were bartered or gifted to folks back home. They had enough fabric that skilled seamstresses were able to work around areas of damage and still wind up with gowns that were longer and fuller than the average bridal gown of the day. Reusing a parachute allowed the bride-to-be to still have a “new” silk gown, while also honoring the servicemen coming home from battle.
Some dresses were even made using the very same parachutes that had saved the groom’s life. Elyse Knox, a 1940’s Hollywood actress and pin-up girl (and the mother of NCIS star Mark Harmon!) was one such resourceful bride. Her beau Tom Harmon’s parachute saved his life after he was shot down over China, and still had bullet holes in it when he gave it to his sweetheart.
At least one serviceman proposed with his life-saving parachute instead of an engagement ring. Maj. Claude Hensinger had to bail out of his plane over Japan in 1944 when the engine caught fire. After landing, he used the parachute as a pillow and blanket while waiting for rescue. He used the same parachute in 1947 to propose to his girlfriend Ruth, asking her to use it as a wedding gown. She worked with a local seamstress to create a stunning Gone with the Wind-inspired dress that was later worn by two other brides in the family before being gifted to the Smithsonian.