Old, Weird Tech: Life-Saving Parachute-Turned-Wedding Dress

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In case you've been ensconced in a cone of silence for the past several weeks, the royal wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William of Wales at Westminster Abbey took place today. Fashion's been quite the focus (Middleton wore Alexander McQueen) as an aesthetic flourish to the fairy-tale ceremony, but don't let the incessant fawning fool you: no wedding dress says romance more than one made from a life-saving parachute:

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This dress, worn by Ruth Hensinger and now property of the Smithsonian's National Museum for American History, was made from a nylon parachute that saved her husband Claude's life during World War II. Claude Hensinger, a B-29 pilot and air force major, was returning with his crew from a bombing raid over Yowata, Japan, in August 1944 when their engine caught fire. The crew was forced to bail out:

It was night and Major Hensinger landed on some rocks and suffered some minor injuries. During the night he used the parachute both as a pillow and a blanket. In the morning the crew was able to reassemble and were taken in by some friendly Chinese. He kept the parachute and used it as a way to propose to Ruth in 1947. He presented it to her and suggested she make a gown out of it for their wedding.

She wondered how she was going to make "this voluminuous item" into a dress. Seeing a dress in a store window that was based on one that appeared in the movie Gone with the Wind, she patterned her dress after that. She hired a local seamstress, Hilda Buck, to make the bodice and veil. She made the skirt herself; she pulled up the strings on the parachute so that the dress would be shorter in the front and have a train in the back. The couple were married in the Neffs Lutheran Church in Neffs, Pennslyvania, July 19, 1947. Their daughter and their son's bride also wore the dress for their weddings.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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