Illustration by Katharina Brenner

In 1966, Scott Paper Co., an American company that made a range of paper products, released an advertisement for their new ‘Color Explosion’ range of toilet paper and paper towels. 

In it, two smiling young girls were pictured in knee-grazing shift dresses, hands tucked into pockets. The two dresses in the photograph — one flooded with a monochromatic Op-Art pattern, the other red with a smattering of paisleys — were disposable paper dresses, made out of a cellulose material called ‘Dura Weave’ and designed as a tongue-in-cheek promotion for the company’s new range of throwaway tableware. For just $1.25, anyone could get one of the dresses posted to them, along with coupons for Scott’s new collection of tissues and napkins. Ironically, the tableware range was soon forgotten, but the idea for paper dresses caught on like wildfire. The company received over half a million orders for the dresses in less than a year. What was designed to be a fleeting ‘teaser’ turned into one of the hottest must-have fads of the late ’60s.

Courtesy ATOPOS cvc

Whether covered in a psychedelic composition of colorful circles, abstract brushstrokes on a collage of adverts from the Yellow Pages, or a black-and-white photograph of a rose, the paper dress was versatile, and above all, affordable. In his book, Ready to Tear: Paper Fashions of the ‘60s, author Johnathan Walford writes that “the self-consciously modern 1960s and its optimistic quest for a space-age future had created a progress-minded society that was ready to embrace the ephemeral quality of disposable apparel.” Meant to be worn just once or twice, the paper dress became a perfect vehicle for personal style and politics, and also turned into a potent communication tool that could be designed as a poster for a cause, or an advertisement to promote a product.

In many ways, the paper dress spoke to the spirit of the times in the United States: The ‘60s were a moment of sweeping cultural changes, and an upending of the conformity that marked the post-war years; it was also a time that saw the growth of a new generation of cultural consumers with disposable incomes, who were keen to embrace fresh, fun ideas. The decade’s appetite for fast-changing trends was whetted by the arrival of a throwaway dress that could be splashed with whatever pattern, artwork, or photograph was popular at that moment (amongst many dresses that were printed with photographs of celebrities was one with a portrait of Bob Dylan, released as a part of a series by Poster Dresses Ltd., which had to be discontinued after the musician threatened to sue). The sexual politics of the time, too, were cleverly underscored by a piece of clothing that could be easily torn off, and which was completely customizable. All one needed to adjust the hemline was a pair of scissors and some tape.

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“The paper dress phenomenon can be associated with the sexual politics of the ‘60s, mainly through the freedom it gave to the body, the fragility of the material, and the possibility that the paper dress could be torn, get wet, be destroyed at any moment,” says Vassilis Zidianakis, co-founder of ATOPOS cvc, a non-profit, cultural organisation which spearheads the RRRIPP!! Collection. The archival project  has documented and showcased more than 500 disposable paper dresses through exhibitions, installations, lectures, and publications since 2005. 

“An interesting example is the paper bikini,” says Zidianakis. It was advertised with the phrase “The paper bikini: How long will it last?” pasted alongside an image of the bikini, implying a sexual aspect — that the bikini made out of these paper-like, throwaway materials could dissolve in water leaving the wearer naked. “Ιt is also worth mentioning the women’s liberation movement of the period,” continues Zidianakis, “and the fact that women were able to ‘go away for the weekend’ without lugging a suitcase. They could just choose a couple of packets off the shelf, put them in their bag and off they went to enjoy themselves without all the traditional trappings!”

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As a result of its raging popularity, the paper dress was suddenly everywhere. Leading brands and companies began making their own versions of the dress, each desperate to get a piece of the pie. Emblazoned with a catchline or the picture of a product, the paper dress was now not just a cheeky garment that nodded to the frivolity of the times, but it became the perfect poster: a cheap, effective way to advertise a new product, with the wearer functioning like a moving billboard.

Famously, in 1967, Campbell’s released the ‘Souper Dress’, printed with rows of identical Campbell’s Soup tins, wryly appropriating Andy Warhol’s iconic artwork that elevated the humble, everyday Campbell’s soup to superstar status. The incredibly popular dress could be ordered by mailing $1 along with the labels from two different vegetable soups to Campbell’s. Other companies were not far behind: Breck Shampoo designed two graphic dresses in eye-catching colors; Green Giant of frozen and canned vegetables fame designed a dress that looked like the costume worn by their mascot, Jolly Green Giant; Hallmark Cards Inc. launched a dress for the hostess that mirrored the floral patterns of napkins, plates and cups. In 1967, designer Elisa Daggs created a gold foil dress with a ruffled collar for stewardesses on Trans World Airlines’ first class flights to Paris, and even bizarrely, a lime-and-purple paper saree for Air India as a promotional campaign, available for the price of $5.00 by mail order from Air India’s public relations department in New York. A strapless paper party dress by Daggs was also featured in a 1966 issue of TIME magazine. Numerous more were designed as ‘wearable advertisements’ by Yellow Pages phone directory, Viking Kitchen Carpets, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox Studios, Seagram’s Crown Whisky, and newspapers like The Milwaukee Sentinel, The Tacoma News Tribune, and The Chicago Sun Time.

The customizability of the dresses added to its charm. “One of the most characteristic examples is that of the ‘Paint your own Paper Dress’ sold with a watercolor paint set by Mars Manufacturing Company, in 1966,” wrote Myrsini Pichou, research advisor at ATOPOS cvc, in an article for Costume Magazine.“The event for the launch of that particular product in New York resulted in the creation of the ‘Fragile’ and ‘Banana’ paper dresses by Andy Warhol, who was invited to participate in the publicity stunt.”

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Politicians, too, turned to the allure of the paper dress and used it as a mobile form of poster, aligning the wearer with their cause. Designed with bold type treatments, or cut-outs of portraits spliced together in a collage with political logos and symbols, these dresses were handed out to women supporters who wore them to rallies. 

“The women wearing these dresses became walking billboards, as Alexandra Palmer has argued; like supporters of football,” says Stamos Fafalios, co-founder of ATOPOS cvc. “In the 1968 Presidential Elections in the US, several candidates exploited the paper dress fad, including Eugene McCarthy, George Romney, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon — they all printed their campaign logos on paper dresses worn by their young supporters in events.” 

While a cut-out of Robert Kennedy’s portrait was encircled by a constellation of stars, the paper dress for Nixon’s campaign was printed with a maze-like, type-forward treatment in red and blue. The infectious popularity of the paper dress seeped across countries; in the same year, in Canada, Pierre Trudeau printed his own photograph on a paper dress for his successful campaign for the federal election.

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In spite of its soaring success, the draw of the ephemeral paper dress dimmed in the span of two years. The changing political mood and the rise of hippie culture towards the close of the ’60s resulted in a distaste for consumerist, disposable ideas — and disposable commodities. Ultimately, the frivolity of the paper dress — which once appealed to scores of young women — was the reason it fell out of favor of the next generation, who rejected throwaway objects, were more mindful about the environment, and cared about what they put into it. However, as this strange garment rose and fell from public memory during its brief lifespan, the paper dress became emblematic of the power of a short little dress that, when turned into a poster, held the collective attention of an entire nation.