Every wedding dress tells a story, though perhaps few could tell one quite like Schenectady native Antoinette (Toni) Cilberti’s.
The 76-year-old floor-length gown, complete with long sleeves and buttons all down the back, started out as a nylon parachute, which her future husband Nicholas Cilberti brought back with him after serving in World War II. It was one of just a few things he brought back after his plane was shot down over the then-uncharted islands of the Philippines in 1945 and he survived 28 days in the jungle before finding his way back to a U.S. military base.
When the two Schenectady natives were to wed, Toni Cilberti, who turned 98 this month, remembers her mother-in-law and friends gathered in the family’s living room and ripped out the parachute’s seams to transform it into the lithe gown she’d later walk down the aisle in at St. George’s Episcopal Church.
After their wedding day — Oct. 5, 1947 — it was folded up and put in a Carl Company box, where it remained until last year when Cilberti took it out for the first time. Despite the years, the gown is in near-perfect condition and is still the same creamy white that it was on her wedding day.
In the coming weeks, it’ll be sent off to its next home: the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
“I’m so thrilled that I found a safe haven, that they’re going to have my gown,” Cilberti said.
It may sound like a novel material to use today, however, parachute dresses weren’t entirely uncommon in the 1940s. Like Nicholas Cilberti, many WWII soldiers returned home with fine silk parachutes that had been used and weren’t deemed fit for military use.
“At the same time, fine fabrics for bridal gowns were scarce. So, as early as 1943 we see evidence of brides responding to the fabric shortage by crafting wedding gowns from their husbands’ wartime parachutes,” said Mary Zawacki, executive director at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
The historical society has one such parachute dress in its collection, and these wedding gowns are a reflection of women’s resourcefulness during that era as well as an interesting tie between patriotism and romantic love that is certainly emblematic of that time, Zawacki noted.
“Toni’s is particularly stunning with its breezy fabric, and would be considered a very fashionable wedding gown in 2023,” Zawacki said.
Beyond sending her gown, Cilberti will also send the National WWII Museum a trove of treasures from her late husband’s time in the military and his career in Schenectady following that. It includes the letters they sent back and forth while he was serving in the air force.
The letters weren’t particularly romantic; truth be told, Cilberti was quite reluctant to write to him at first. She was roped into the correspondence by her best friend, Carmel, who happened to be Nicholas’ sister. Carmel was dating Cilberti’s brother and when both their brothers went into the service, Carmel suggested Cilberti write to Nicholas.
“And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t stand him . . . I run the other way when I see your brother,’” Cilberti said.
But Carmel made her a deal: “If you don’t write to my brother, I will stop writing to your brother.”
Cilberti couldn’t have that, so she eventually started writing to him.
“It turns out, he is such a good writer, so funny, just the way he talked,” Cilberti said. “The letters were so cute. I got to the point where I started to look forward to getting them and then when he came home, he asked me for a date. And I thought, oh my god, what am I gonna do?”
She went and discovered he was a different man than the one she’d known before.
“He got over his terrible teens because, after that, he was great. We had so much fun together,” Cilberti said.
The two would go to dances and often traveled on the weekends down to Atlantic City. Antoinette worked as a secretary at General Electric while Nicholas ran Cilberti Electroplating and Polishing Company. Together they had two children.
Nicholas was also a volunteer with the East Glenville Fire Department and was a master and member at St. George’s Lodge. Toni Cilberti also volunteered with the lodge and fire department and still does to this day.
Throughout most of his lifetime, her husband didn’t speak about his experiences during the war.
“He even wrote [in a] letter ‘When I come home, I don’t want to talk about it. I want to leave it all behind me,’” Cilberti said.
When his plane was shot down, The Gazette covered the story. It was Aug. 13, 1945, just days after Japan sued for peace, and Cilberti was heading to Tokyo when the plane went down.
“Not a single one of us knows exactly where it was we crash landed,” he wrote in a letter home.
The survivors of the crash subsisted on some of the vegetation and whatever wildlife they could find. They also were met with enemy soldiers, one of whom Cilberti killed.
“Two days later we finally met some friendly natives on the island and it was with their cooperation and kindness that we finally made it back. We hit Leyte Sept. 12,” Nicholas Cilberti wrote.
He had to remain on the island recuperating for some time and when he was ready to head back to the States, he refused to take a plane. The military honored the request and instead, he came home aboard a ship.
While he didn’t talk about the experience, Cilberti got glimpses of its effects on him through the years.
“Today they have post-traumatic stress, they didn’t have that then. So he just overcame it. We never talked about it, he didn’t want to talk about it. But he was very outgoing. Always a fun kind of person. Everybody loved him,” Cilberti said.
He died in 1992 at the age of 69. Since then, Cilberti has moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in Scotia and she keeps a full social calendar.
When The Gazette paid her a visit, she’d gotten back from volunteering at Schenectady Inner City Ministry and had plans to ballroom dance and bowl later that week. She regularly goes ballroom dancing and even sews some of her ballroom dresses. She also exercises every day and extols the benefits of being active.
“You have to work at it is what I tell everybody,” Cilberti said. “I say get up off that chair and go do something.”
She keeps herself moving even when watching a movie at home after a night of ballroom or square dancing. The spry 98-year-old celebrated her birthday on April 12, getting together with her dancing friends for 98 chicken wings at the Rusty Nail.
On Saturday afternoon, there’s also a square dancing celebration in her honor in Gloversville, with friends and family coming together from around New York State, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
In the coming months, she hopes to travel to the National WWII Museum to see her wedding gown in the museum’s collection.