Three Brides — One Satin and Lace Dress

In May of 1945, World War II ended in Europe, when the Germans surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. After six long years, the death, destruction, and rationing of basic necessities were coming to an end. Young couples across North America and Europe were excitedly planning weddings and looking toward a better future.

Our mother, Catherine Elizabeth Johnston, age 20 at the time, had recently completed a two-year occupational therapy training program at the University of Toronto. It was offered to meet the rehabilitation needs of returning soldiers. Her sister, Mary Millicent, age 22, was taking stenography and office skills courses to prepare for work. And eldest sister, Marjorie Evelyn, soon to be 25, was serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in England as a physiotherapist.

The sisters’ parents, aka our grandparents, Major and Mrs. Harold E. Johnston, were stationed in Chatham, Ontario, where Grandpa was serving as a dentist in the Canadian Army. In sync with the times, daughters Catherine and Mary were preparing for their weddings. Catherine’s was on the shortest deadline, set for May 11, 1945, in Toronto.

Whether the family bought a wedding dress for Catherine or had one made, ongoing fabric shortages would have limited their choices. Fashion designers that year were featuring shorter skirts and straight, simple lines, to address the situation. No flounces or frills.

In spite of the constraints — or maybe because of them — Catherine looks elegant in her wedding portraits in the simple ivory satin gown with its long sleeves and lace bodice. I remember her telling me that she had gotten a perm for the wedding and was distraught when it went all frizzy.

About a month later, her sister, Mary, was wed to Donald L. Thompson, who served as a radio operator in the Royal Canadian Navy and would soon be headed for dental school. The ceremony was held on June 9, 1945, in Chatham, Ontario. In the couple’s wedding portraits Mary is wearing the same dress, complemented by a different veil from Catherine’s to add an individual touch. Catherine and George Broatch, recently back from their honeymoon, were their matron of honor and groomsman.

To complete its mission of wartime thriftiness, the dress would grace one more wedding – this one across the Atlantic Ocean. About 15 months after Mary’s wedding, big sister Marjorie married Felix “Mac” McKnight, recently returned from Burma, who was a pilot and a flight instructor in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves. The ceremony took place on September 4, 1946, in England. They emigrated to Canada in September of 1948, with their 14-month-old daughter, Mary Catherine.

All three sisters looked beautiful in the wedding dress. Luckily, they were all slender and near the same height, which would have saved them the cost of altering it between weddings. At 76 years old, the wedding dress was recently carefully cleaned, wrapped in tissue, and placed in a box for safekeeping.

I loved hearing this story from my mom. I wonder if the sisters planned beforehand to share the wedding dress with one another. It could be that Grandpa and Grandma Johnston, who’d lived through World Wars I and II and the Great Depression of the 1930s, strongly suggested the idea. Did Grandma Johnston shop with her daughters for the dress or for the fabric to make it? And where would they have found it? Sadly, as is true for many of these stories we hear in passing from our elders, there is likely no one alive today who can fill in the blanks.

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