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Monday, July 19, 2010

Retro Product Fail #3: Paper Dresses

"Paper clothing, apparently, is here to stay" reads a Time magazine article from May 1967. Uh-huh. Well, it's now 43 years later and I've yet to see an article of clothing made from paper, but in the mid to late 60s this fad enjoyed some moderate popularity among swinging fashionistas. A fascination with space age inspired style plus the influx of disposable household items such as cups, plates and diapers set the stage to give paper "fabric" its 15 minutes of fame.

The first paper dress was introduced by Scott Paper Company in 1966 and offered through the mail at $1 a pop. The dress' shapeless chemise style was ugly and unflattering (although available in a red paisley or black and white op art pattern) and to the company's amazement, they received over 500,000 orders within an eight month span. Soon, other companies jumped on the paper chase bandwagon. Hallmark offered "hostess dresses" that were meant to match party napkins, tablecloths, and other accessories. You could mail order an Andy Warhol inspired Campbell's Soup paper dress. Dresses that featured the images of political figures running for office became popular. Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, among many other notable department stores, opened up paper departments. Some companies began experimenting with paper hats, aprons, pillow cases, slippers, and even bikinis (which they claimed could last through a few swimming sessions.) Apparently even the Beatles showed up at an event wearing paper men's suits.

None of this clothing was actually made of paper as we think of it. The material was a combination of cellulose reinforced with a bit of synthetic thread such as nylon or rayon. It wouldn't rip or tear with normal wear, but it certainly wasn't as durable as regular fabric. In fact, most paper clothing was meant to last through a dozen wearings or so before you'd throw it away. With most dresses selling for just a few dollars, it certainly was an economical alternative.

In typical 60s fashion, one of the weirdest paper dresses was embedded with seeds and would actually grow flowers if you watered it!

So what made this low cost, quirky fad finally fall out of fashion? It wasn't that the dresses would rip easily or really all that impractical, but that they were highly flammable. Manufacturers caught onto the danger and started to add flame retardants to the paper, but by then it was already falling out of favor. They were also said to be itchy and uncomfortable to wear.

Today, of course, any paper clothing that's survived until now is considered a collector's item. Here's some of the images I found of paper dresses while scouring Google images. If you owned a piece of paper clothing, I'd love to hear about it!


  1. I only watched Project Runway one season so I don't know if they normally do something like this but they had a challenge where the designers had to made a garment out of L.A. Times newspapers. A couple of the designers rose to the challenge but most freaked out.

  2. HA!! Paper clothing! I hadn't heard of this fad. Funny how the only models wearing the "itchy, highly flammable, shapeless" garb are WOMEN. Probably invented by some dumb man. ;)

  3. Yes, I remember and think we tried making one out of grocery bags, lol!

  4. Hi I'm Susan and I owned a paper dress. It was 1969 and I sent a dollar in the mail for it. When it arrived, it fit terribly and I don't think I ever wore it anywhere. I did cut the bottom off because it was too long on me. I wish I had saved it, but I threw it away!!!

  5. I like the pattern on the one in the pie ad. I had heard about paper dresses before but I've never actually seen any - thanks for posting this.

  6. I remember the fuss my Aunts threw over the dresses; at the time they were hair-dressers (curlers, rat tailed combs and aqua Dippity-Doo!). I was small but remember the slightly stretchy feel of the fabric; IIRC the end to that dress was a spilled coffee stain shortly after and maybe some slight tearing.


  7. Thanks for the comments everyone and as usual, Marlene, your observation made me LOL!

  8. I love the idea of these. They looked so cool and very 60s.

    I came from a famiy where we used everything again and again and again... I don't think my mom would have liked the concept of these, although she was always hot for a bargain!

  9. Amanda - probably for a few dollars during the summer they may have been a bargain. I like the cat print and the comic strip one...it appears she did the seams herself using duct tape!

  10. My Mum bought some paper knickers for me and my sister to take on holiday. We wore them but they were a bit baggy. The material resembled J cloths and we had great pleasure ripping them off each night and throwing them away!

    Also received some paper bloomers one Christmas. These were in fashion for a short period in the early to mid sixties for a short time. I had some royal blue bri nylon ones too, edged with white lace. My sister's were red!

  11. I had the paper dress with the cat on it. I actually wore it to see Pat Paulson arrive at the Orlando Florida airport for his presidential campaign tour in 1968!


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