Paper dresses

The paper dress enjoyed a brief but lively vogue in the late 1960s as a novelty fashion item. A simple, above-the-knee length chemise, constructed from nonwoven cellulose tissue reinforced with rayon or nylon, the inexpensive “paper” garment featured bold printed designs and was meant to be discarded after a few wearings.

Individual paper clothes and accessories existed as early as the nineteenth century, when paper was especially popular for masquerade costumes. The first modern paper dress is credited to the Scott Paper Company of Philadelphia, which introduced it as a 1966 mail-in promotion. Consumers were invited to send in a coupon from a Scott product, along with $1.25, in order to receive a “Paper Caper” dress made of Dura-Weve, a material the company had patented in 1958. The dress boasted either a striking black-and-white Op Art pattern or a red bandanna print. Scott’s sales pitch underscored its transience: “Won’t last forever…who cares? Wear it for kicks—then give it the air.”

The campaign was unexpectedly successful, generating 500,000 shipments and stimulating other manufacturers to promote paper garments. Within a year of Scott’s promotion, paper fashions were on sale in major department stores. Some, such as Abraham & Strauss and I. Magnin, created entire paper clothing boutiques. At the height of the craze, Mars Hosiery of Asheville, N.C., was reportedly manufacturing 100,000 dresses a week.

A big factor in the appeal of the dresses was their eye-catching patterns—daisies, zigzags, animal prints, stripes—that suggested Pop Art. Some imagery made the dresses akin to walking billboards, showcasing ads for Time magazine, Campbell’s Soup cans, political candidates, and poster-sized photographs. Fun and fashionforward, the dresses could be hemmed with scissors or colored with crayons. And, at about $8 apiece they were affordable, inspiring Mademoiselle magazine editors to exclaim in June 1967: “The paper dress is the ultimate smart-money fashion” (p. 99).

Modern, whimsical, and disposable, paper garments captured the 1960s zeitgeist. It was a time when new industrial materials like plastics and metallic fibers were making inroads, Rudi Gernreich and Paco Rabanne were pushing the limits of clothing design, and the post-World War II baby boomers were in the throes of a vibrant youth culture centered on fashion and music. Consumers accepted the notion of cheap, throwaway clothing as they embraced disposable cutlery, plates, razors, napkins, lighters, and pens. The fashion press even predicted that paper garments might take over the marketplace.

Instead, by 1968 paper dresses had lost their currency. Wearers found they could be ill-fitting and uncomfortable, the printed surfaces could rub off, and there were concerns about flammability and excessive postconsumer waste. Plus, they had simply lost their cuttingedge appeal due to overexposure.

However, the dresses’ paperlike cellulose fabric was adapted as a practical and lightweight material for disposable garments for hospital and factory workers. And the legacy of the 1960s paper dress continues to inspire contemporary fashion designers like Yeohlee and Vivienne Tam, whose spring 1999 collection featured a line of clothes constructed from DuPont Tyvek, the reinforced paper used in overnight mail envelopes.

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