Deany Keith was 16 and living with his family in Corning, New York, when his brother, Preston Douglas Powers, a WWII soldier, sent him a German silk parachute he found on the beach in Normandy , in France, on D-Day. It was 1944, and parachutes had become very coveted items – for making wedding dresses.
“When I got engaged to a boy whom I met at a square dance, who was also in the service, my mother made me a wedding dress because the material for the dresses was scarce,” he said. said Ms Keith, now 93. at home in Country Meadows, a retirement community in York, Pennsylvania. “The fact that my brother thought enough about it to send it to me and my mom made the dress made it special. It was a family effort. You cherished something like this. Especially during this time.
She and her husband, Clinton Keith, were married on August 23, 1947. Today, her dress is one of 20 that were donated to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
In the 1940s, silk became difficult to obtain and was reserved for essentials like parachutes, not dresses. The mosquito net, another sought after item found on the battlefield, was also returned by the soldiers to become bridal veils.
“The dresses from 1941 to 1948 cover a whole range of design, material and style. They tell the story of ingenuity and improvisation, ”said Kimberly Guise, the museum’s deputy director for curatorial services. “People think about conflict, violence and weapons. They don’t expect to see a wedding dress or an item used in battle that has been turned into something beautiful that offers a fresh start. “
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These marriage artefacts and heirlooms are a testament to the creative, inventive and resourceful way women marry during years marked by loss, uncertainty, fear and desire.
“The war resulted in extreme shortages of goods,” Tyler Bamford, historian and researcher Sherry and Alan Leventhal told the museum. “The new wedding suits and dresses were out of the question. The same was true for wedding cakes, as there was a shortage of sugar.
Eighty years later, the coronavirus pandemic has caused couples to approach wedding ceremonies and receptions with similar flexibility, creativity and ingenuity.
Mr. Bamford noted the parallels. “The venues were closed and limits were set on the number of guests couples could invite,” he said. “Today, and during the war, there were travel bans and housing shortages.”
“Substantial sacrifices were made and the marriages were significantly different from what the brides envisioned,” he continued. “In both cases there was stress related to marriage and marriage, small ceremonies and many family members were unable to attend.”
However, while World War II made it possible to expand the possibilities of meeting people and fostering relationships between strangers, the pandemic restricted contacts and connections.
“During the war it was very easy to meet people because young men were moving across the country like never before,” Ms. Guise said. “A lot of them were passing through New Orleans.”
The city, already a tourist destination, became a center of production and training in wartime and a port of embarkation. With the influx of soldiers, the social scene came alive.
“They went to dances, dinners, and canteens, some of which were run by united service organizations,” Ms. Guise said. “It was exciting for the women to be introduced to these new men in uniform, which was glamorous and caused some hasty marriages.
Today, this opportunity does not exist. But other correlations remain. Marriages during the war and now have been reduced, many couples were waiting to get married and people were concerned for the safety of their loved ones. Those who couldn’t be together, whether in combat or because of a stoppage, faced long periods of separation.
Mr Bamford pointed out that today’s couples, those who postponed and pivoted, “postponed the joy and the celebrations, as they did then, in the hope that the wait in will be worth it ”.
“Faced with enormous challenges, couples then and today have found unexpected ways to celebrate their union, despite the roadblocks,” he said.
The museum has also amassed a collection of over 15,000 love and breakup letters documenting the long-distance relationships between soldiers and sailors and their girlfriends, fiancees and wives. They speak and highlight the losses, hardships and horrors of war. Like the dresses, these irreplaceable letters are a nod to a lost art and to the loss of something romantic. (A lip emoji is a poor substitute for a real brand of lipstick that’s been purposefully pressed onto onion skin paper.)
“These letters and dresses are as beautiful as the stories the brides and their families have told us about how they got them,” Ms. Guise said. The stories are shared in written profiles, oral histories and digital images found on the museum’s website.
“There is a legacy in these personal items,” she says. “The war was not just fought on the battlefields. It extended to the home front.
Mr Bamford said parachutes were perfect examples of this. “Parachutes saved soldiers’ lives and were central to their identity.” he said. “They were considered an elite object. If a woman had access to it, it was a scarce commodity. These experiences teach us a lot more about ourselves than we expected.
Ms. Keith spoke of hope and optimism yesterday and today. “We have been through the war,” she said. “We will go through Covid.”
Her husband passed away in 2019. Ms Keith said she donated her dress because of its sentimental value and for others to see a piece of history.
“I cherished it while I had it and then I wore it,” she said. “The dress is 72 years old. War was part of the meaning I had. I have no idea what I would have worn if I hadn’t had it. That alone was of value.