Paper Dresses of the 1960s

From Collector's Guide To Vintage Fashions: the 1950s & 60s.

      "After all, who is going to do laundry in space?" one textile designer summed up the most novel trend of the 1960s. In an era where the old-fashioned view of having lasting, classic clothes was dying out, and the new idea of carefree, easy clothing was rushing in, paper clothes seemed just the thing. Still, paper clothes were a surprise to almost everybody--even their manufacturers.
      The first smashing success paper dress was sold in 1966 by Scott Paper Company. By sending in $1, women could receive Scott's "Paper Caper" dress, and 52 cents worth of coupons for Scott paper towels, cups, tissues, etc. A simple, chemise-style dress in a red paisley design or black and white "op art" pattern, to the company's amazement, they sold 500,000. Around the same time, Hallmark began selling "hostess dresses" of paper, which were created to match paper party napkins and tablecloths. Paper maternity wear suddenly popped up, as did paper wedding dresses (after all, you only wear a bridal gown once, anyway--right?)
      Soon, ads advised women that for two wrappers from Dove, Lux, or Lifeboy soap, plus $1, anyone could own a "Swinging Dress" and hat of paper. Breck offered a dress for $1.25 plus a box top from Go Go Light high lighter. Even Pillsbury offered a dress for $1 and a box top. In 1967, the paper dress seemed so practical and modern, it was predicted that by 1980, 25% of all money spent on clothing would go toward the purchase of paper clothes. The convenience seemed too good to be true. If a dress was too long, just whip out your scissors and cut it shorter; if it stained, throw it out; if you got tired of it, dump it in the trash! Paper dresses from clothing stores easily cost under $15 (although one designer, Judith Brewer, is reported to have created a coat made of paper pom-poms, costing some $200), and home-sewers could buy kits for paper dresses that only required a few seams to be stitched up; some companies also offered dresses that could be decorated by their buyer with pens, paints, rhinestones, and other trimmings.


      "The Big Paper Craze" was one of Mademoiselle's cover stories in June of 1967. "In terms of how much pow you get for your pennies, the paper dress is the ultimate smart-money fashion," the editors praised. "And the news in the paper is this: surprisingly pretty prints, clever new shapes that would do credit to an origami expert. (Surprisingly long life too: as many as 12 outings)." Actually, paper dresses were a little more than just paper; they were usually composed of 93% cellulose and 7% nylon (rather like dry baby wipes), or sometimes made of "Dura-Weve," which was cellulose reinforced with rayon. Although they were indeed more fragile than cloth, they were not likely to rip at the slightest move. Many paper clothes also featured closures of Velcro, making them seem even more "space-age."
      Mademoiselle's copy--headlined "Paper Profits"--highlighted a variety of paper fashions, made from intriguing and creative materials. "Smart Smock," one garment was dubbed. "What's surprising? Item: this smock's a tube of paper. Paper. Not only that, but--item: it is paper that's been knitted. Knitted. That means a new kind of texture. And not only is it surprising, but item: it's spiffy-looking...$8." Another section noted other surprises: "The floppy paper hat (surprise! Paper hats aren't just for parties), $4...and who says a paper dress has to be shaped like a paper bag? Right now designers are getting all kinds of new ideas down on paper--everything from bikinis to bedroom slippers..." to pillowcases, to aprons and laundry bags, to earrings and scuff slippers ("when they've had it, kick them off--and out"). Another innovative dress was advertised as: "Party Stopper. Shimmering white mini with silver fringe. Poly-plastic on Scott Dura-Weve paper. Wipe off and press again and again. $5.95 ppd." But without a doubt, the weirdest paper dress--by one of the wackiest dress manufacturers of the 1960s--was meant to grow herbs. "It was amazing," Paraphernalia's founder admits. "There were little seeds planted in a kind of blotter paper, very soft--kind of like a Handi-Wipe. It was like those Magic Rocks you put in water. When you watered the dress, it grew these strange little blossoms."
      So hot were paper fashions that Mars Manufacturing went from making stockings to creating paper clothes; Abraham & Straus opened paper clothes boutiques; Sakes Fifth Avenue opened a paper fashion department, as did Lord & Taylor, Altman's, Bonwit Teller, Gimble's...Within a few years, however, the paper fashion industry was in real danger of extinction. It's final cause of death? Not, as we might imagine today, because disposable clothing was wasteful--but because the clothing was so easily apt to catch fire. Even if Mademoiselle had featured a solution to that problem: "So what's new? A crisp, little paper tent...fire-resistant paper." And for a mere $3.

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(c) Copyright 1997, 2001 by Kristina Harris.

04/21/2006