Monday, May 12, 2014

Disposable Fashion

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1966, Scott Paper Company launched a marketing stunt that sparked a huge, though very short-lived, fashion trend – the paper dress.  If you sent $1.25 in to the company, you got back their “Paper Caper” dress and 52 cents worth of coupons for their other paper products like toilet paper and tissues.  The promotion was overwhelmingly successful.  They sold 500,000 paper dresses in just six months. 

Paper dress made by Paper Wear, Ltd. of Baltimore, Maryland
Paper dresses were not exactly made out of paper.  Most were made of a blend of 93% cellulose and 7% nylon to give them some degree of durability.  Some were made of cellulose reinforced with rayon with the brand name of “Dura-Weve.”  The garments could be worn more than once but cost so little that they could be easily thrown out if they tore or got stained.
Polyester and rayon fiber disposable dress
made by Fling-Things of Philadelphia
Hundreds of thousands of disposable garments were sold between 1966 and 1968. Lifeboy soap, Beck shampoo, and Pillsbury sold $1 paper dresses in promotions similar to that of the Scott Paper Company.  Paper dresses were sold at major department stores like Sears, Roebuck & Co. and J.C. Penney's and Saks Fifth Avenue opened a paper fashion department.  Even Hallmark got in on the trend by creating paper “hostess dresses” to match their paper party napkins and table cloths.
Silver disposable dress
The paper dress arrived on the market a precisely the right time.  The youth of the 1960s were turning away from the post-WWII value of durability in everything.  Disposable items like pens, lighters, plates, and cutlery were flooding the market and paper dresses seemed the next reasonable step.  The dresses themselves captured the youth culture of the time with bright colors and bold patterns and an easy, carefree silhouette.  Many believed that disposable fashion would take over the market because of the low price and convenience but by 1968 paper clothing had almost completely disappeared from the market.
Draper dress by Paper Ware, Ltd. of Baltimore, MD
So, why was the paper dress trend so short lived?  One might guess that the disposable nature of the dresses and the amount of waste that must have been produced might have played a part in the end but it didn’t really.  The trend probably ended because the dresses were ill-fitting, uncomfortable to wear, and the wonderfully bright colors could rub off.  Also, the dresses caught on fire very easily.  Some were treated with flame retardant to keep them from combusting.  While paper garments as fashion disappeared fairly quickly, the use of cellulose fabric continues today in disposable hospital gowns, scrubs, and coveralls.

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