Parachute Fashion - Way more than just pants

Susan Mc Ateer

One christmas when I was working for a high-end art and craft fair, I convinced myself that I needed a pair of underwear made from parachute silk and a corresponding bed jacket. They were delicate, hand embroidered and necessary for my lounging and sleeping purposes. I didn’t buy them because they cost about a month’s wage, but man did I pine. The parachute silk was repurposed from a World War 2 parachute, and while I thought wearing history on my cooch was novel and original, turns out it’s not a new concept. During the rationing times of World War 2 fabric was in short supply which led to women becoming pretty creative and resourceful in how they approached materials, clothing and the overall trajectory of women’s fashion. Outside of their rationing cards, women turned to the alternative materials: parachute silk and nylon. 

There are stories that would make you swoon about how some women acquired parachute material. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History have a wedding dress made from parachute nylon which was worn by American Ruth L. Hensinger in 1947. Her boyfriend Claude Hensinger was returning from a bomb raid in Japan in 1944 when his engine caught fire causing the crew to evacuate. Claude’s parachute saved his life and then doubled as a pillow and blanket that night when they had to lay low. He kept the parachute and proposed to Ruth by presenting it to her suggesting she make a wedding dress out of it; Claude you suave bastard. Ruth had the parachute nylon made into a dress fashioned on Scarlett O’Hara’s gowns in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (casual) complete with voluminous ruching and a lavish train. Parachutes - save your life, and get a wife. 

Ruth L. Hensinger’s wedding dress 1947, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Ruth L. Hensinger’s wedding dress 1947, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Not all the stories associated with parachute material are so sweet that you could actually faint. A group of English women descended upon a crashed German pilot in 1941 armed with pitchforks, brooms and textile scissors. The pilot thought he was done for, but all the women went for was his ivory silk parachute. They divvied up the silk with some using it to make dresses, and others to make underwear. Although a precious commodity, some of the fabric had German printing on it so those parts obviously couldn’t be used - it was one thing to swathe your (non-military) privates in enemy silk, but quite another for it to be so outwardly German. 

Parachutes have influenced fashion in other ways that aren’t as direct. Parachute pants you say? A yes. Despite what you might think, which I definitely thought, M.C Hammer didn’t invent parachute pants. Apologies if I’ve destroyed a vision of old M.C being both a music and fashion maestro; but he did have a hand in popularising them. Originally parachute pants were pretty tight all over and made from nylon, like most actual parachutes. They became big in the 1980’s because of the rise of breakdancing which required pretty durable clothing to handle those sweet moves on any surface. The shape of the pants evolved to become baggier in the crotch and thighs to allow less restricted movement and to minimise friction. In this way they kind of resembled parachutes in their ballooning shape; step/dance in M.C Hammer to adopt this trouser shape and name them Hammer pants. A little self-involved, but we’ll take it. 

Norma Kamali parachute dress, 1974

Norma Kamali parachute dress, 1974

Norma Kamali. Before this story I didn’t know Norma Kamali, but now she’s the only person I want to know. She invented the sleeping bag coat after a camping trip in the 70’s where she had to wrap up in her sleeping bag to keep warm for a midnight pee. Cozy genius. She was also responsible for that Farrah Fawcett swimsuit. Her repertoire doesn’t read that coherently, but what becomes clear is that she experiments with shape, style, hemlines and material. In the mid-1970’s she created a collection from parachute material after a colleague gave her a vintage silk parachute from the Korean War. She promised to make him a jumpsuit (how appropriate) from the parachute, and went further to create dresses, skirts, swimsuits and jackets from the material which all maintain the visual elements of their original purpose. Ruching and draw strings are prominent but also serve a function in adjusting and altering the lengths and shapes of the clothing. This collection was one of Kamali’s most iconic, and she revisited it in 2012 to create a parachute 2.0 line. In case you’re wondering what Kamali is up to these days, she has only created a campaign to stop the objectification of women by encouraging women to deal with and discuss body and self-image. Marry me in a silk parachute dress already Norma.

Norma Kamali dress and jumpsuit 1977, gift of Eddie Kamali 1978, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Norma Kamali dress and jumpsuit 1977, gift of Eddie Kamali 1978, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Parachute fabric itself isn’t the only element that has found other uses or been reappropriated in the name of fashion. Naimakka bracelets are made from paracord, a ridiculously durable cord which when unraveled can be used to make a clothes line, fishing line, a splint for a broken ankle; it has even been used by astronauts to make repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope. You know, all the things that I need to be able to do at a moment’s notice. While I didn’t buy the parachute silk underwear and bed jacket, and Norma’s fashions aren’t necessarily available to me as they now reside in museums, I think I’ll land me a Naimakka bracelet; because at the end of the day I wouldn’t be able to unravel silk underwear to make a fishing net or contribute to a rocket science maintenance kit.