It is the middle of June, historically the most popular month for weddings. Named for the Roman goddess, Juno, the month of June is a month associated with the Queen of the Gods, goddess of marriage. Therefore, it was a time when people believed their unions would be blessed by the goddess of the institution into which they entered. Throughout the centuries, the month continued to be popular for its fine weather, Spring and Summer flowers in bloom, outdoor spaces available in the dry and warm weather, and appropriate timing for guest attendance (schools being out of session, vacation time being used often at work, etcetera).
So, in honor of the month of L-O-V-E, (who needs February anyway!) I want to share with you two incredible stories about wedding dresses that are both romantic and patriotic.
While looking at tweets on Twitter a few days ago, I was intrigued by two Smithsonian links to items in the National Museum of American History. Both stories touched my romantic little heart and were fascinating, so, I had to share. The stories on the Museum’s blog and newsroom feature wedding dresses made out of parachutes. Yes, parachutes.
Rosalie Hierholzer Parachute Wedding Dress, 1940's. Smithsonian National Museum of American History
First, let me set the scene, because no designer in their right mind nowadays would think about recycling a military-issue safety device for that one-of-a-kind special day creation. It was during the height of World War II. Everything was rationed, from sugar to meat, and certain materials like rubber and nylon were scarce because they were needed for more important products being produced to send to our servicemen overseas.
Silk and nylon, materials used to make stockings and fine fabrics, were used to make parachutes for soldiers in the Air Force, among other things. Silk was also an import from Japan and China, areas unavailable for trade at the time, for obvious reasons. Therefore, both of those items were scarce on the home front. It was not uncommon for military issued items made of these materials to be recycled as undergarments, hosiery, and wedding gowns. Therefore, when both Rosalie Hierholzer and Ruth Hensinger were offered their fiancé’s parachutes as material for their wedding gowns, both said yes, and the rest is history.
There is a bit more to both women’s stories, however, including details that make this factoid about rationing and home front shortages more human and real.
Rosalie Hierholzer met her husband in the summer of 1945 in Texas. Temple Leslie Bourland was a radio operator for the 77th TC Squadron of the 435th Troop Carrier Group stationed in England and France. While flying over Germany, his plane was hit, and Bourland, along with his fellow crew members, jumped to safety. While floating down over the Rhine, Bourland’s parachute and his hip were shot. While recovering and regrouping, Bourland and a friend used the parachute as a blanket until they were rescued in time for this war hero to participate in D-Day. During Bourland and Rosalie’s courtship, Bourland showed his fiancé his war mementos, including the parachute that saved his life, and Rosalie’s aunt offered to make her niece’s wedding gown using the silk fabric, bullet holes and all. Fortunately, there was enough fabric left for Rosalie’s aunt to cut around the holes in the dress.
Like Rosalie’s gown, wedding dresses from this period were often designed and made by someone close to the bride or her family. Traditionally, wedding gowns were passed down by families and reused after refurbishment until the first few decades of the twentieth century, when the wedding gown became a unique, personalized dress, worn once on the bride’s special day. During World War II though, women had to improvise in order to be able to make their own one-of-a-kind creation.
Ruth Hensinger Parachute Wedding Dress, 1947. Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Ruth Hensinger, in a similar twist of fate, had a parachute to thank for providing her with not only a fiancé, but with fabric for her own fashionable gown. Her husband, Major Claude Hensinger, a B-29 Pilot, was forced out of his plane with his crew by an engine fire while flying back from a bombing raid over Yowata, Japan. Like Bourland, Hensinger used his parachute as a pillow and blanket while waiting to be rescued by Allied Forces. When he and Ruth became engaged in 1947, Hensinger offered up his parachute fabric for his bride to use. Ruth, seeing a wedding gown based on a dress worn by Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind
, decided to design her dress to echo the aesthetics of the costume in that movie. In retrospect, I find this fact quite funny, especially if you’ve ever seen the Carol Burnett Show
.* Forget the curtains, Ruth’s got a parachute!
Both dresses (actually all three, if you include Carol Burnett’s curtain dress) can be found in the Smithsonian collection. They are a reminder of what weddings are all about: love. Without the fabric that these brides wore to the alter, their husbands wouldn’t even be there. Reusing the parachutes for material worn to the celebration of each couple’s love is not just economical and patriotic, but extraordinarily romantic and symbolic. While both dresses are beautiful, well-crafted, and the brides looked gorgeous on their wedding day, we should take something away from these women in an age of million dollar wedding circuses. Yes, the dress is usually the focal point of the day, but it isn’t all about what you wear.
* Make sure you watch part 2 after the first video. It’s the best part!
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