Paper dresses

In the 1960s, society fell in love with the idea of progress. Young people with disposable incomes embraced the cult of the new, becoming keen consumers of fun, informal and fast-changing trends. This appetite for novelty fuelled one of the decade's most frivolous fashion crazes: the paper dress.

The perfect expression of fashion's own fickleness, these two-dimensional shift dresses were cheap and 'disposable' – designed to be worn only once or twice – and proved ideal vehicles for the bold, graphic prints that had become so popular during the decade.

Two paper dresses manufactured by Dispo (Meyersohn & Silverstein Ltd), designed by Diane Meyersohn and Joanne Silverstein, 1967, England. Museum no. T.176-1986/T.181-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The invention of mass-produced paper fashion is attributed to Scott Paper, an American company that made toilet tissues, baby wipes and other sanitary products. In 1966 Scott Paper produced a simple disposable shift dress out of 'Dura-Weave', a cellulose material already used to make laundry-reducing garments for hospital workers. The dress, which was printed in two patterns – one monochrome and strikingly Op Art, the other in red paisley – was intended to be a short-lived 'teaser' product, a promo for the company’s new throwaway tableware range. You could get one of the dresses in the post, along with coupons for the tableware range, by sending Scott just $1.25. They became a surprise sensation, with over half a million orders received in less than a year.

Left to right: diaper-pattern paper dress, unknown, about 1967, probably UK. Museum no. T.137-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Op-art paper dress, Scott Paper Company, 1966, US. Museum no. T.30-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The huge potential of the 'promotional dress' was soon capitalised on by other companies and concerns, such as the 1967 'Souper Dress'. Printed with rows of identical Campbell's Soup tins, this wearable advertising was a wry take on the iconic Warhol painting which had turned a homely foodstuff in to conceptual art five years before. The power of the throwaway dress as a vehicle for bold prints was also harnessed for political ends. In the US the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign commissioned a special design – the letters N-I-X-O-N in red, interspersed with blue stars – for female supporters to wear at rallies.

Left to right: The Souper Dress, 1966. Photograph © Kerry Taylor Auctions. Poster dress, designed by Harry Gordon, 1968, London. Museum no. E.375-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The fashion world in the US and then the UK adopted the paper dress as the answer to the decade's restless appetite for 'the new'. Labels such as Poster Dress, Wastebasket Boutique and Dipso were dedicated to producing fast-changing ranges of disposable garments that allowed customers to easily stay abreast of trends. Designers like Ossie Clark also launched their own range of 'throwaways'. At the height of demand, Mars Hosiery (the makers behind Wastebasket Boutique) was producing 100,000 dresses a week. The 'no sew' nature of paper dresses made them a good fit for female consumers keen to reject the 'Make Do and Mend' attitude of the previous generation. Paper dresses could be altered in minutes with scissors and Sellotape: much more fun than spending a night in with your sewing basket. And for those young women who were keen to explore the decade's increasing freedoms, going out in a dress that was blatantly easy to tear off posed an exciting way to underline the new sexual politics.

Paper dress, designed by Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, made by Ascher Ltd, 1966, UK. Museum no. T.261-1988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other women wanted their dress to last for longer than a single wear. Unsurprisingly, the original paper-fibre dresses were prone to tearing or creasing, so manufacturers capitalised on advances in material technology to make more robust versions from wood pulp mixed with synthetic fibres (rayon, nylon and polyester). These new composite fabrics could be 'refreshed' by ironing on a cool setting, or even washed (although not more than once or twice). For a brief time, it looked like the paper dress might be the long-term future of clothes manufacturing. That is until high-street shops were able to compete by offering a quicker turnover of everyday fashions in materials that were cheap, relatively long lasting and far more wearable than cellulose. The political mood was shifting, too, encouraging people to fall out of love with the paper dress. Towards the end of the decade, hippy culture began to foster distaste for consumerist, throwaway ideas. By the end of 1968, the 'paper caper' garments that had been so popular only two years earlier had become yesterday's news.

Left to right: Paper 'Dispo' dress maufactured by Meyersohn & Silverstein Ltd, designed by Diane Meyersohn and Joanne Silverstein, 1967, London. Museum no. T.174-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Paper dress, Waste Basket Boutique, 1967, US. Museum no. T.32-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London