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Post Modern: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a dress?
Fresh out of high school, Jack Ley put his life on hold to enlist as a U.S. Army Air Force pilot. He soared over China during World War II with an emergency parachute strapped to his back, unaware that the woman of his dreams would wear it on their wedding day.
Eastern Kentucky University during the mid-1940s was booming with young war vets whistling lustfully at the lady passersby. After leaving service, Jack became one of the upperclassmen catcalling at the first-years as they filed into the dining hall.
That is until 18-year-old Barbara DeBorb caught his eye and he knew she was worth more than a whistle and a pickup line. Just one year later, the couple were planning a trip down the aisle.
But there was just one hitch in their plans. During the war, China had halted all imports of silk to the United States, and the small sum of spare silk was used to make parachutes and plastics for the battlefield. The price of this luxury textile was beyond the young couple’s budget, as were the wedding gowns on the department-store floors.
So Jack wiped the dust off his old parachute and offered it to his bride-to-be. On Feb. 10, 1948, Barbara donned her groom’s war souvenir when she met him at the altar.
“I just remember how happy I was the day I married Jack, as a result of wearing that dress,” said Barbara Ley, who is now an 84-year-old retired Ohio University secretary. “It was the highlight of my life.”
When Jack finally saw Barbara at the end of the aisle, he turned to his brother, who was his best man, and whispered, “That is my girl.”
For just $10, an elderly Kentucky seamstress turned the all-silk parachute into an elegant, full-sleeved wedding gown with a dip in the neckline and pleats at the waist. She even threw in a handcrafted veil as a bonus.
“She was excited to work with the silk,” Barbara said. “And I thought it was so pretty when I finally put it on, I just grinned for hours.”
The 19-year-old bride was one of a few women who were fortunate enough to wear silk shortly after the war. Textiles that shone like wedding-dress material were an expensive rarity.
In 1940, the price of silk stockings almost tripled from 69 cents to $1.98 within just one year, said Trina Gannon, a graduate student studying WWII fashion at OU.
Sears’ 1945 spring collection featured “formal gowns,” rather than wedding wear. The dresses were made of nontraditional cotton or wool and ranged from $6.98 to $9.98, a lower price than the catalog’s veils, which were more delicate and cost about $10 on average. Fashion was hardly a priority in the states during the ’40s, when even synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester were reserved for war materials.
On March 8, 1942, the War Production Board released the L-85 Regulation Act, restricting the amount of cloth that clothing manufacturers could use. Women’s fashion took a plunge under the act, as designers were no longer allowed to incorporate back pleats, scarves, hoods or sashes into their garments.
The new limitations had fashion-forward females of the ’40s in an uproar that their new garb was paying little respect to their curvy silhouettes. A headline in the 1943 September issue of Vogue even read, “New collections narrow the line, widen the use.”
After American designers adapted their dresses and trench coats to meet government standards, more than 15 million miles of fabric was reserved for the U.S. Army to use in the war.
By the end of World War II, silk and satin were not even available to U.S. civilians besides a few pre-war bowties that sold for about $10 each in New York City boutiques. Otherwise, Gannon said, new silk was only obtainable through the U.S. black market.
“Waiting on a silk worm to do its thing is a long process,” said Katherine Jellison, OU history professor and post-WWII wedding connoisseur. “So when our sources were cut off during the war, those materials were rationed.”
But not long after the L-85 Regulations were implemented, the American Association of Bridal Manufacturers successfully lobbied Congress to exempt the bridal industry from these rationing rules in defense of the traditional white silk wedding gown.
“It sounds funny to think of bridal wear as war equipment,” Jellison said. “But that’s what they were arguing for.”
Barbara wasn’t the only one wearing a life-saving parachute on her wedding day. After lamenting their partners’ wartime furloughs, women were eager to wed upon the men’s return.
“Marriage became popular back then because they had survived the Great Depression and a war,” Jellison said. “The financial hardships were over, and it was time for them to celebrate home and family.”
By 1946, wedding gowns were being manufactured with dense synthetics such as nylon but still not silk. So brides-to-be rummaged through warehouses seeking castoff parachutes to avoid the already-made gowns sold in department stores for a bank-breaking $100 — equivalent to $1,000 today.
“Men of that generation, their identity as WWII vets was very important to who they were,” Jellison said. “By taking one of their major supplies and turning it into wedding gowns, they took a war artifact and made it into one of the main artifacts of peacetime.”
Brides Magazine reported in 1946 that the average cost of a formal wedding was $1,830, or $19,000 in today’s dollars, and an informal wedding was $195, or $2,000 in today’s dollars. Jellison estimated that the total cost of marriage from engagement to honeymoon today equals about $30,000.
Barbara’s parachute dress is now featured with five other vintage wedding gowns in the “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” exhibit at the Athens County Historical Society and Museum.
“I bet (their wedding) was very romantic,” said Jessica Cyders, the curator. “The war was a major part of their identities, and for Jack to see her wearing his parachute on his wedding day must have been very touching.”
Jack and Barbara bore six children during their 36 years of marriage. After moving to Athens in the ’50s, Jack became a physical-education teacher at Chauncey Dover Elementary and was later the principle of Shade Elementary. The couple divorced in 1981 and remained close until Jack’s death in 2003.
“I’m very proud and humbled that my wedding dress has a spot of honor,” Barbara said. “It is a wonderful memory.