Sunday, 1 April 2018

Paper Caper - 1960s paper fashions

When I made my last post of my Etsy wish list I was quite surprised by the reaction of paper clothing so thought it would make a good post all of it's own!

It can be difficult to understand paper clothes from today's perspective as the biggest question seems to be "but why??", so it's important to remember that consumerism was brand new in the 1960s. In the UK rationing from WWII had only ended in the mid-50s, and the youth of the '60s were the first working class generation to ever have disposable income - previously their wages had to help support the household. This is why earlier generations were more of the "make do and mend" mind set, where absolutely nothing went to waste because there simply wasn't enough to go around - money, food, anything.

So when you look at the 1960s through this lens, you can understand the excitement that consumerism caused. Today we're used to popping to Primark every week and filling up landfills, but the 1960s were the very beginning of fast fashion. The concept of wearing something new every week for discotheques and parties was exciting and new, and designers were coming up with new ways to make fashion even faster. So it's unsurprising then that the idea of making clothes literally disposable felt revolutionary.

Paper clothes were first introduced in 1966 by The Scott Paper Company, who intended it as a publicity tool. For $1.25 and a coupon women could buy a sleeveless shift paper dress which came in two designs: a black and white Op Art motif, and a red bandanna pattern. Paper clothing most popularly came in the form of dresses as it's structure lent itself well to A-line shift dress shape, but later there were also other items available such as men's vests, evening gowns, jumpsuits, children's pinafores and even underwear.

A paper coat, from VintageClothingDream on Etsy.

It created a bit of a fad with designers jumping on the bandwagon, and paper dresses could soon be found in boutiques and department stores in both the US and the UK. In 1967 a paper shift dress in the US was commonly sold for around $8, which is the equivalent of around $68 in 2018 so although disposable they were by no means cheap.

Paper clothing wasn't like what we use to write or draw on - it was more in line with disposable hospital clothing which you may be familiar with if you've ever had to wear it for surgery, it feels like a stiff paper towel. Due to being paper it came in a wide array of colourful mod and psychedelic patterns, but these colours would disintegrate and transfer onto the wearer as the fibres began to break down from wear, and although it was moisture-proof you couldn't wear it in the rain. Just think about what happens with you get a magazine wet and imagine that happening to your dress! They were however highly customisable as they were easy to shorten with nothing but a pair of scissors, they could be sellotaped back together if they tore, and some even came blank so the wearer could draw on their own design.

Possibly the most famous paper dress. Although the inspiration for the design was taken from Andy Warhol’s use of the Campbell’s Soup label, Warhol did not design this dress or have any involvement in its creation.

Paper clothing was expensive for what it was, and often cost as much as regular clothing. Fast fashion may have been taking hold, but clothing made during the '60s was still most often produced in the country it was sold in. If you collect vintage clothing from this time period, you'll know how much better quality it is compared to today's clothing - even more expensive stores like Topshop are shoddy compared to the quality of vintage. So to the average working class girl of the 1960s, why would she buy a throwaway gimmick when she could buy something comfortable that would last? So it's unsurprising that paper clothes died out rather suddenly, helped in part by Mod styles being replaced by the hippie lifestyle which was more concerned with pollution and waste and preferred wearing more laid back and exotic styles. As a result paper clothing had mostly died out by 1969.

Although paper clothing was only around for a couple of years it's an important part of the history of 1960s fashion. If you're in the UK and would like to see a paper dress in person they have a couple on permanent display at the V&A Museum in the fashion exhibit. And I'm sure there are many more in fashion museums around the world!

A photo I took of the V&A display a few years ago. The paper dresses are hanging on the wall, and yes that is an original Scott Paper Co dress on the bottom!


  1. I can see why companies would love these paper dresses. I am sure it was much easier to print and design a pattern for paper instead of cloth. You even show that dress that matched the paper decor. Still find it a little crazy, though I am sure the comfort thing was a good reason for it's decline in popularity.

    1. Companies must have been making a mint from it as I can't imagine they cost very much to make. I find it quite funny how they made it to match the party decor as I can't imagine wanting to wear a dress to match my napkins!

    2. Everything was so matchy matchy! I see some home decor books from the time and it would show the same fabric pattern for the drapes, couch, sheets, anything that could be covered in fabric! Some even would show the same fabric placed on the ceiling!

  2. That Hallmark ad made me chuckle. I like a bit of matchy-matchy, but have never thought of co-ordinating a dress with tablewear!


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