|By Larry LeMasters
Paper dresses were a “throw away” style of clothing from the mid-1960s that involved low cost construction for the manufacturer and low purchase cost for the consumer. The dresses, discarded after a few wearings, captured America’s vibrant youth culture and its all-to-willingness to turn away from war and embrace whimsy.
Paper clothing in general, women’s dresses in particular, was made from disposable cellulose fabric, and women’s “throw away” paper dresses became a short-lived rage as a fashion novelty item in America.
Scott Paper Company invented its mass-produced “Paper Caper” dresses in 1966 as a marketing stunt to advertise its paper products. The “stunt” with its “Paper Caper” sales pitch, “Won’t last forever…who cares? Wear it for kicks — then give it the air,” captured America’s heart and paper dresses became the fashion rage for a couple of years.
Scott Paper customers mailed in a coupon and $1.25 to receive a dress made of “Dura-Weve,” a strong, cellulose material that was created in 1958 and was considered an “un-paper” since it was 93% paper-napkin stock reinforced with rayon webbing, creating a durable fabric-like material.
Other novel, paper materials used for women’s dresses included “Kaycel” by Kimberly-Stevens (93% cellulose and 7% nylon), “Ree-may” by Du Pont (made of “spunbonded polyester) and “Webril” by Kendall.
The original Paper Caper dresses were offered in two prints, a red bandanna print or a black and white optical illusion print. Paper Caper dresses were only offered in one style, with four sizes, an A-line shift cut from two pieces of material. The dress had no sleeves and one patch pocket on the hip. A template designed to produce two, mirrored sides was used, and then the two sides were simply sewn together around the edges, producing one long seam and one “shaggy” dress.
In the first year, Scott Paper produced 500,000 Paper Caper dresses, but other companies, eager to jump on the fad, began making their own versions of paper dresses, including Breck Shampoo who offered “Go Go” paper dresses and Curtiss Candy Company, who offered “Baby Ruth” paper dresses.
Just one year later (1967), paper dresses were sold in major department stores around America, averaging $8 per dress, which was expensive in 1967. At the height of the fad, Mars Hosiery, of Asheville, NC, earned its 15 minutes of fame by producing 100,000 paper dresses per week, making Mars the leader in the paper dress market.
While dresses fueled the paper-clothing fad, other clothing items were also made of paper, including underwear, bikinis, children’s “throw away” clothing, and bridal gowns, which sold for around $15 in 1968.
Paper dresses not only captured the energy of the youth movement of the 1960s, they were also designed by famous artists or copied famous artist’s work, such as the “Souper Dress” that featured Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans” design. This dress originally cost just a couple of dollars, but today it is sometimes offered on eBay for as much as $700.
As fads go, paper dresses was a short-lived fad, due primarily to the dresses’ ill fit, uncomfortable styling, garishly harsh colors (referred to as “bold printed designs”), and flammability (paper burns). By 1969, paper dresses were already passé and women began dreaming of the new decade to come and the new fashion designs that would adorn them.
Today, paper clothing, especially cellulose fabric clothing, continues to hold a strong market since most disposable work garments, such as hospital gowns and coveralls, are made of synthetic paper, but before doctors and nurses could wear paper, young, hip women of the ’60s pioneered the look.
Paper Caper dresses were a “throw away” style that became a throw away fad. Fads come and go, and the 1960s had more than its share, but the paper dress has continued to appeal to women’s creative nature, if for no other reason than its continued reputation in fashion circles and museum events, and its nostalgic appeal to a lost generation of women.