Dresses with History: The Wartime Creations which Salvaged Silk

Posted by Miss Chloe on

They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and what’s a girl to do when she needs a new frock? Use her husband’s military issued parachute silk, of course!

During the Second World War, parachutes were made of genuine silk due to their durability, lightness, and how easy they were to pack. What’s more is that, unlike Nylon, which may melt and cause significant burns when ignited, silk is very fire resistant. Silk was simply the more practical resource, and as such, the US, UK, and German militaries all coveted this already precious material for their respective war efforts. Textiles in general were rationed during the war, and this meant that ladies had to make do with what they had, or adapt their dressmaking to the resources they did have. This led to the shorter, more utilitarian skirts which rose just below the knee, used much less fabric than their 1930s counterparts and generally didn’t have pockets or belt loops or any other features deemed wasteful and unnecessary. But for those extra special occasions like weddings, women still wanted to look and feel their absolute best. They began using what materials they could get their hands on in addition to their rations and created some truly stunning pieces of clothing. 

Sewing 'on the bias', when fabric has been cut at a 45 degree angle to the weave of the material, makes skirts flow and hang better, giving the appearance of a fuller skirt -  a clever trick when textiles were rationed

In America, particularly, soldiers would often bring home the parachute that saved their lives for their brides to sew their own wedding dress. Parachutes were not typically dyed, this was cost and labour intensive in a time where resources were incredibly scarce and time wasn’t associated with money - it was survival. This did, however, mean that parachute silk was perfectly suited to a second life as a wedding dress (or underwear - there are also stories about people salvaging the silk from landmines and making undies!) Undyed silk was a natural white, and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of these women gave way to an array of beautifully crafted, luxurious dresses, many of which still survive today.

Once worn by an American bride in 1947, this beautiful dress is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum

Silk also played an important part in the safe escape of prisoners who were captured whilst behind enemy lines. Eager to preserve as many of their soldiers’ lives as possible, many militaries wisely issued them with escape maps. There were a host of issues with traditional paper maps, though. For starters, soldiers trying to escape needed to be as inconspicuous as possible, and a large, rustling map was sure to give them away before they even got to the door. Even if they should escape with the use of a traditional map, they were made of paper and therefore soon disintegrated once exposed to the elements. This is all given that the bulky paper maps could be effectively concealed and smuggled to the POWs! This is where silk yet again comes in! Soldiers were soon issued with maps printed on silk cloth. The idea for these silk maps is widely credited to a man named Clayton Hutton, an MI9 officer known for his eccentricity behind a number of escape and evade aids which are still in use today. These escape maps could be folded down incredibly small and stashed in all number of places, often sewn into clothing or hidden in packs of cards . Should the time come to use them, these beautiful silks would unfold silently and resist wind and rainfall far better than any paper.

An intricately colour printed silk escape map detailing various 'zones of France'

Of course, we can’t be sure how many lives were saved by this clever invention which brilliantly showcases the benefits of using natural materials, but this important part of the war effort was, again, immortalised by at least one woman who held the fort at home. There exists at least one dress constructed from these map segments. Smaller in size, these pieces of silk were painstakingly repaired and sewn together to form a larger piece of fabric, from which an unknown seamstress then cut and sewed, making a most amazing button-down frock, complete with a belt and even a little gather on the skirt as a real middle finger to the frugality imposed by the war.

A rare authentic vintage silk map dress, likely made during or just after World War II

We’ve all heard of making the best of a bad situation, and these brave men and women did just that, finding joy in repurposing the painful reminders of a traumatic experience into something meaningful. The result of this unusual war effort being beautifully intricate dresses which were worlds apart from their utilitarian origins. 

Whilst we might not (currently - never say never!) stock any authentic vintage dresses crafted from genuine parachute silk, we do have an extensive collection of 1940s inspired reproduction vintage. In true 40s fashion, we’ve created a mix-and-match capsule wardrobe for those among us who favour the forties:

  • The Tessa 40s swing pants: when a skirt isn’t practical (or you just don’t like skirts all that much), there’s no better way to do vintage than with a pair of swing pants. These gorgeous trousers feature an authentic-feeling side button fastening and are super flattering on the waist
  • We love the swing pants paired with a cute button down cardigan like the Vera Classic Organic Cardigan. This is crafted from organic cotton and has a snug fit which lends itself perfectly to being worn buttoned down and tucked into trousers. Available in a variety of colours, the mustard gives us some real vintage vibes!  
  • The Sandra 40s Shirt Dress has all the features you’d expect of a typical wartime dress - available in petrol blue and dark rose its dark hues can be dressed down for winter and accentuated with bright accessories for the summer. The design of this dress is reminiscent of the utilitarianism of 40s fashion and today this simple and understated style feels super classy. 
  • You’re never fully dressed without a smile... or shoes, let’s be real. We have a wide range of shoes which would suit a 40s look, and we think that the Marika Sandal is a great accompaniment to this wartime wardrobe. Available in white and gold, we love the delicate geometric style cut outs and peep toe on these darling low heeled sandals
  • Every land girl needs somewhere to keep her treasured possessions whilst she's out holding down the home front! The Belforte Leather Satchel is a pretty accompaniment to any vintage outfit. Available in cobalt and Mustard, this bag fits the understated objective of 40s vintage fashion perfectly. Alternatively, genuine vintage grab bags are available in abundance from the vintage market and are a good way to give your outfit an authentic feel if caring for genuine vintage clothing feels a little scary for you
  • For a bit of glam, we love the Hortense Ombre Crystal Luxe Earrings, a subtle yet sparkly addition to your look which have a timeless beauty about them

If you’re in the UK and want to see some examples of these beautiful, one-of-a-kind dresses with a wealth of history, heartache, and resolve behind them, there are a few museums with dedicated collections. The Silk Museum in Macclesfield is based in a large ex-art school building and also draws upon local links to the silk industry and uses of silk in the war. Alongside hosting various exhibitions about silk and silk craft, the V&A museum in London also has an upcoming online course which explores the history of this luxurious material from production to sewing room.

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →