Canadian Fashion Connection – Parachute

This weekend we added to our ‘Parachute’ collection when we acquired this man’s jacket from the early 1980s by Parachute. Originally purchased and worn by James Fowler, a fashion designer working in Toronto in the 1980s. Parachute has been perhaps the most internationally recognized Canadian brand of clothing – ever.

In 1977 Harry Parnass, a Montreal born designer who had trained as an architect, was working for the Montreal clothier Le Chateau, a boutique type of trendy cheap chic clothing designed, manufactured and retailed by the Le Chateau company, when he met Nicola Pelly, an English born and educated fashion designer who had come to Canada in 1971 and had just started working at Le Chateau. The two joined up romantically and professionally, opening a boutique in Montreal to sell their own line of clothing in 1978 they called ‘Parachute’. Their line was a hit and by 1983 the brand was more available in the U.S. than Canada and was also being sold in Italy, the U.K., and Japan.

The clothes were ‘simple with swagger’ said one fashion article. In an interview with Montreal’s Gazette in 1979 Parnass said that “The liberation movement of women, gays, and ethnic groups, plus the forces working against cultural homogenization were giving us all a potential shot at individual heroism.” Big shouldered heroic-looking clothes were the result.

At the height of its popularity in the early-mid 1980s, ‘Parachute’ was appearing in music videos and was being worn by celebrities on and off stage, including Madonna, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, George Michael, Duran Duran, and David Bowie. Parachute clothes were also in the wardrobe department of the 1980s iconic television show Miami Vice. The big shouldered look was waning in the early 1990s, leading Harry Parnass and Nicola Pelly to close down their Parachute brand in 1993.


Wedding dress worn July 19, 1947, made from parachute used in 1944. From the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

A reader of my Forties Fashion book sent me a link to a blog about a wedding dress made from a parachute. I have seen, read about or heard of maybe two dozen garments made from parachutes, including underwear, baby clothes, and raincoats, but most of the time it’s wedding dresses that were made from parachutes.

Because of the lack of available material during and immediately following the war, parachute silk (which was rarely ever silk but rather nylon or some other man made material) was used to make civilian clothes. It was illegal to use found parachutes during the war because authorities required them to be turned over for investigation. All of the surviving garments made from parachutes I have seen were made from postwar surplus rather than wartime finds.

This wedding dress was made from the nylon parachute that saved the life of the groom, Major Claude Hensinger. In August 1944, Hensinger, a B-29 pilot, was returning from a bombing raid over Japan, when the engine caught fire and the crew had to bail. Years later, when Hensinger proposed, he offered his bride-to-be the parachute for making her wedding dress. The couple were married July 19, 1947 and the dress was later worn by their daughter and daughter-in-law before being donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

Making Do in 1942…

(Originally blogged November 11, 2010)

Remembrance day is intended to honour the memory of those who died in service but civilians also paid a very high price, especially during World War II – the first war where more civilians died than soldiers.

As an honour for Remembrance day here is a snippet I had lurking in my files. This is a picture of a page from an English women’s wartime magazine I found online a long time ago. The magazine gives creative ideas for using military surplus parachute cords for trimming an old dress or hat, or even a lampshade! It may seem silly, but articles like this gave civilian women a distraction by offering a bit of fun, which improved the home front morale.

I wanted to include this illustration in my book on Forties Fashion but I never could find an original copy, so if you have this publication – let me know!