The disruption of weddings, then and now

Wedding dresses
An undated photo shows Clinton, (far left), and Deany Keith, (third from right). (Photo: NYTimes)
Deany Keith was 16 and living with her family in Corning, New York, when her brother, Preston Douglas Powers, a soldier in World War II, sent her a silk German parachute he found on the beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day. It was 1944, and parachutes had become coveted items — for making wedding dresses.اضافة اعلان

“When I got engaged to a boy I met at a square dance, who was also in the service, my mother made me a wedding gown out of it because material for dresses was scarce,” Keith, now 93, said from her home at Country Meadows, a retirement community in York, Pennsylvania. “The fact that my brother thought enough to send it to me, and that my mother made the dress, made this special. It was a family effort. You treasured something like this. Especially during that time.”

She and Clinton Keith were married on August 23, 1947. Today her dress is one of 20 that have been donated to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

In the 1940s, silk became difficult to obtain and was reserved for essential items like parachutes, not dresses. Mosquito netting, another sought-after article found on the battlefield, was also shipped home by soldiers to become bridal veils.

“The dresses from 1941 to 1948 run the gamut in design, material, and style. They tell the story of resourcefulness and improv,” said Kimberly Guise, the museum’s assistant director for curatorial services.

“People think of the conflict, the violence, and weaponry. They don’t expect to see a wedding dress or an item used in combat that’s been transformed into something beautiful that offers a new start.”

These wedding artifacts and heirlooms are a testament to the creative, inventive, and resourceful way women married during years marked by loss, uncertainty, fear, and longing.

“The war brought extreme shortages of goods,” said Tyler Bamford, a historian and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal research fellow at the museum. “New suits and weddings dresses were out of the question. So were wedding cakes, because there was a sugar shortage.”

Eighty years later, the coronavirus pandemic has made couples approach wedding ceremonies and receptions with similar flexibility, creativity, and resourcefulness.

Bamford noted the parallels.

“Venues closed and limits were put on the amount of guests couples could invite,” he said. “Today, and during the war, there were travel bans and housing shortages.

“Substantial sacrifices were made, and weddings were considerably different than what brides envisioned,” he continued. “In both cases there was wedding and marriage stress, small ceremonies, and many family members were unable to attend.”

Weddings during the war and now have been scaled down, many couples waited to marry, and people were concerned for their loved ones’ safety. Those who could not be together, whether in battle or because of a shutdown, had to deal with long periods of separation.

Bamford highlighted the fact that couples who have postponed and pivoted “have put off the joy and celebrations, like they did back then, with the hope the waiting will be worth it.”

“When faced with enormous challenges, couples then and now found unexpected ways to celebrate their unions, despite the roadblocks,” he said.

The museum has also amassed a collection of more than 15,000 love letters and breakup letters documenting the long-distance relationships between soldiers and sailors and their girlfriends, fiancées, and wives. They speak to and highlight the losses, difficulties, and horrors of the war. Like the dresses, these letters are a nod to a lost art, and the loss of something romantic. 

“These letters and dresses are as beautiful as the stories the brides and their families have told us regarding how they got them,” Guise said.

The stories are shared in written profiles, oral histories, and digital images on the museum’s website.

“The war didn’t just play out on the battlefields. It stretched onto the home front,” she said. 

Bamford said the parachutes were prime examples of this.

“The parachutes saved the soldiers’ lives and were central to their identity,” he said. “They were considered an elite item. If a wife had access to it, that was a rare commodity. These experiences teach us a lot more about ourselves than we might have expected.”

“We got through the war,” she said. “We will get through COVID-19.”