The paper dress of the 1960s so captured the fancy of the young and vibrant Mod generation across America, that the fashion press speculated that paper garments may take over the entire clothes market. Little did they know that American culture was about to make an abrupt transformation with the Hippie counterculture movement.
Between the Beatnik era of the early 1960s and the Hippie period later that decade, came a period of American pop subculture known as the “Mod” era. Originating in London, England in the late 1950s, “Mod” (from the cultural term “modernist”) peaked in the early-to-mid 1960s in England and resulted in bringing to the US the popular use of motor scooters (which became a trendy mode of transportation especially in California), coffee houses (which sprouted up all over California and New Your City‘s Lower East Side), terms like "groovy," and the new “fashion obsessed” world of androgynous haircuts, “Beatle” boots, Paisley prints and minishirts.
Fashion models like Twiggy became all the rage as a generation of teens wanted to emulate the twig-thin fashion icon who resembled little the ideals of "sexy" represented by such reigning sex symbols as Marilyn Monroe. And from this cultural phenomena arose the paper garment industry, which for a short time appeared to be the wave of the future.
Paper clothes with their wild designs and "far-out" geometrical lines represented an interest in combining fashion, pop art, and the hip subculture that was emerging. According to one costume historian, "paper dresses also fulfilled a need of the post-Depression, post-World War II generation to rebel against a status quo that valued durability. Ephemeral objects satiated a desire for owning contemporary products, ones that could be easily replaced as the definition of 'contemporary' changed."
The Scott Paper Company created the catalyst for the phenomenon in the spring of 1966 when it introduced two new paper dresses to promote its new line of "Color Explosion" paper products. The company produced two dresses with "gift wrap" designs, one a black and white "pop art" pattern, the other an orange-red, yellow, and black Paisley design. Customers who purchased the dresses paid $1.25 and received coupons for Scott's toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins. Featured in Life Magazine, the fashion designer was quoted as saying that paper clothes would eventually be sold in tear-off rolls for only pennies a piece. (In reality, fashionable paper clothes died out rather suddenly, as Mod and Pop styles fell out of vogue with the 'back-to-nature' Hippie lifestyle, and as rising concerns about pollution and waste materialized.)
Scott's dresses, sold as "Paper Caper" products, were not made purely from paper, but an "un-paper" composit the Scott company called Dura Weve. This consisted of 93% paper-napkin stock reinforced with rayon webbing, a combination that made the material more durable than standard paper and gave it a more fabric-like drape. The dresses came in the two prints, four sizes, but only one style—an A-line shift cut from two pieces with no sleeves and a patch pocket on the hip.
When orders for half a million dresses poured in, however, the promotion overwhelmed the Scott Company (who conceived it as purely a promotional venture), so six months after it began, abruptly ended the advertising campaign stating they "didn't want to turn into dress manufacturers," which, of course, left a void in a budding, lucrative market.
When Scott stepped out of the paper garment game, several other companies seeking to capitalize on the unexpected trend quickly opened shop. Breck shampoo offered two mini-skirted "mod-styled" paper dresses as a way to target the hip youth market, and Air India introduced a paper sari with ad copy reading, "Be the first princess in the palace to own one."
In June of 1966, Mars Manufacturing Company of Asheville, North Carolina, a hosiery and swimsuit manufacturer, brought out a line of paper clothing that could be purchased at J.C. Penney's and Sears, Roebuck & Co. In the first three months Mars sold 120,000 dresses that retailed for $1.29 each. By early 1967 the demand so overwhelmed the supply of paper needed for paper clothing (which had now expanded to other paper clothes including shirts and slippers) that a brief "paper panic" among paper garment manufacturers took place.
While Mars dominated the paper clothing business for the general public, other companies catered to an upper-class crowd. Tzaims Luksus, for example, designed full-length hand-painted paper ball gowns, valued at $1000, for an October 1966 event at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. The museum kept the dresses, even though one ripped during the ball and had to be repaired with scotch tape. At the height of demand, Mars Hosiery made 100,000 dresses a week, and were producing other paper items included underwear, men's vests, bridal gowns (expensive at $15), children's pinafores ("just the thing for ever-sprouting sprouts") and even rain coats and bikinis ("good for two to three wearings").
Early the next year, Look Magazine published a fashion spread, "Paper Posh, Disposable Elegance" that featured high-end paper dresses in gold and silver metallics and studded with "gems." These upscale dresses did not have the feel of paper napkins like the Scott's dresses; instead they were made of a stiffer, coated paper. Paper manufacturer Kimberly-Stevens made one version of this product that they called Kaycel, a base paper meant to be coated with Mylar (a clear plastic) and fire-retardant chemicals.
As the novelty appeal of paper clothes wore off, their downsides also became more apparent: they were generally ill-fitting and uncomfortable to wear, their garish colors could rub off on the skin, they were often flammable, and of course, they very soon ended up as trash. By 1968, paper clothing had disappeared from the market. But while no longer used in mass-market fashion, the cellulose fabrics used to make paper clothes are still used to make disposable garments for use in work environments such as hospital gowns, scrubs and coveralls. The paper dresses of the 1960s also still inspire contemporary fashion designers, including Yeohlee and Vivienne Tam, who have on occasion incorporated paper into their designs. (Yuka Housewear Dresses has recently began to market a new liner of eco-friendly paper dresses.)
Images via Wikipedia, Life Magazine archives, Yuka Eco-fashions
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