A very unusual "something borrowed"!
An aviation museum in New York—The Cradle of Aviation Museum—has a special object in its collection: a wedding dress. It was donated to the museum in October 2020, and will be exhibited periodically among many other war relics, as a reminder that there are stories that flourish even in the darkest and most tragic historical moments. That dress is indeed a witness to the war, because it was sewn using the silk from a soldier’s parachute.
A parachute that filled in as a shield
There were many marriages celebrated around the world in 1945, including that of George and Evelyn Breat. They were engaged before the war and then he served his country as a B-17 Bomber pilot on 53 dangerous air missions.
In an episode of the Cradle of Aviation Museum’s podcast, his son Mike Braet tells how during one flight the airplane he was in was hit by flak. Fortunately, although it penetrated the plane, the piece of flak—a rough shard of metal that would have hit George—ended up lodged in his silk parachute, on which he was sitting. The parachute was damaged, but as luck or divine providence would have it, he didn’t need to use it. Due to that damage, the Air Force allowed him to take his parachute home.
“My father came home with this parachute filled with holes,” said the couple’s daughter, Kate Braet (today a Sister of St. Joseph), to a local television station. “If the parachute were not there, it would have killed him.”
Mike Braet recounts on the podcast how his mother, bride-to-be Evelyn, came up with the idea of having her own wedding dress made out of the silk from that parachute. She began the patient effort of removing the military insignia with the help of her local dry cleaner, and cutting out the pieces of fabric not marred by the flak that had passed through it. With the help of a friend of hers who was a seamstress, she had her wedding dress made with the material.
A parachute for a dress
Browsing through newspapers and the web, there are many stories of wedding dresses made from the fabric of soldiers’ parachutes. In Italy, when the American troops landed, many parachutes—valued for their expensive silk—were recovered in daring ways. In Sicily, the huge open “balloons” left in the sea after soldiers parachuted in were called “le medusone,” “the big jellyfish.” Other parachutes were recovered from trees, and still others from crashed airplanes. These were years of misery, and the silk of the parachutes meant a real fortune, along with much other material that could be salvaged.
We associate silk with gala events and elegant occasions, suitable for refined clothing. At the time of World War II, silk was also needed in battle. Jumping from a high altitude to land in enemy territory, relying on the strength of a big piece of silk, is a great paradox of courage and vulnerability. Perhaps this image is not so far removed from the context of marriage.
A wedding dress, it is often said, must be “a fairy tale” or “dreamy.” In fairy tales, the protagonists always face mortal risks. When it comes to dreams, our unconscious gives us not only sugary stories at night, but also nightmares. These brides who used cutouts from torn and pierced parachutes to sew their wedding dresses perhaps came close to truly touching “the fairy tale” and “the dream.” Getting married is diving from a high altitude; it’s saying “yes” to the possibility of encountering risks and surprises, darkness and sudden bursts of light. Above all, it means clinging to that silk parachute that is the hand of God, light and invisible yet resistant.
A story of hope
George and Evelyn Braet spent the entire rest of their lives together, a marriage that lasted 60 years. There must have been some battles between the walls of their home, along with hardships and joys. Theirs has been an invisible and extraordinary story like so many other marriages.
Perhaps more than applauding the longevity of their love, it’s worth noting that their marriage began with the right awareness, that of someone who says, “We have escaped death.” That piece of anti-aircraft fire lodged in the silk may be the symbol of a true wedding gift: we never go to meet those we love with a “pristine dress,” and those who welcome us say “yes” to many holes and tears that are mended only by exposing and sharing them, not by hiding them.
Evelyn’s wedding dress has outlived her and her husband, and is 75 years old this year. On the podcast, Sister Kate says that the dress “survived, as did their marriage, for 60 years” until death separated them. She told the local TV station: “The story goes beyond us, because it’s a story of love, it’s a story of bravery, it’s a story of hope, it’s a story of future,” she said.
For pictures of the dress and the happy couple, visit the museum’s website.