Paper dresses from swinging ‘60s show off planned obsolescence

Jan. 22, 2007

by Barbara Wolff

Photo of a short, brightly colored paper dress.

“Confetti Collection” dress by Love, 1966–69

Photos: courtesy Gallery of Design

If the dress did not become you or if you slopped cooking grease on it, in the halcyon 1960s, you could just throw it away.

Paris or Nicole probably still do that today. However, garments designed expressly to be worn once or twice and then pitched enjoyed a relatively brief period of popularity, roughly from 1966-69, according to Jody Clowes, curator of the Gallery of Design and its new exhibition, “Disposable Dresses: Throw-Away Design from the 1960s.”

“These pieces represent a fascinating chapter in American pop culture. They reflect the experimental, optimistic approach of the textile, chemical and paper industries in mid-20th century,” Clowes says.

The approximately 32 pieces on exhibition also claim links to Wisconsin’s paper industry, particularly through the Institute for Paper Chemistry in Appleton, and to the School of Human Ecology (SoHE), which houses the Gallery of Design.

“The school’s Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection has more than two dozen paper and synthetic disposable garments, many of which were acquired through the foresight of former curator Mary Ann Fitzgerald,” Clowes says. “We also have a great deal of supporting documentation, original packaging and related items including a crepe paper parasol, party goods and paper dolls.”

Bright pink and black ad for the

Packaging insert for a “Waste Basket Boutique” child’s dress, 1966–69

Clowes says that apart from the gentle touch that all historic textiles require, the disposable nature of the pieces actually needed little special handling by either her or HLATC curator Rebecca Kasemeyer, who also worked on the show. However, Clowes notes, there did seem to be a noticeable difference in the durability of various disposable materials.

“Most surprising to me is that the paper garments are at least as stable as the synthetic nonwoven fabrics, mostly spun-bonded polyesters. Those are often so thin that they’re dangerously flimsy, although that may have been part of the point in the swinging ’60s. The metallic nonwovens, ‘Space Age’-style garments made of thin foil fused to plastics or synthetic fabrics, seem much more fragile. They may not last too many more years,” she says.

Industrial designer and Milwaukeean Brooks Stevens coined the term “planned obsolescence” in 1954. He conceived of the concept as instilling in a consumer the design to buy something newer, better and sooner than might otherwise have been necessary.

Clowes worked at the Brooks Stevens Archive in Milwaukee between 1994-2001. She says the process continues to fascinate her.

“Stevens was known for proudly championing rapid style changes as a positive force for a healthy economy,” she says.

Photo of a bright fuchsia paper dress.

“Waste Basket Boutique” child’s dress, 1966–69

No doubt Stevens, who died in 1994, would have nothing but applause for this exhibition. The ultimate in easy care, the garments were inexpensive, fashionable and made excellent conversation starters. They were sold conveniently in drug and grocery stores as well as department stores and boutiques. Consumers often could buy matching paper party decorations right along with the disposable clothes. Clowes says that the disposability of the garments and their expedient purchase implied modernity and leisure, extremely appealing notions in the 1960s.

“The dresses projected a playful, daring, mod attitude,” she says. “Their flimsiness made wearing them an adventure. They also were very sexy — you could cut them to any length with scissors. They were perhaps the most ‘pop’ of the Pop Art Movement.”

However, their day passed by 1970.

“Their short life is a poignant reflection of how swiftly mainstream culture changed in the 1960s. It wasn’t just annual fashion changes — disposable garments could have run with that. Paper dresses didn’t stand a chance against the advent of environmental consciousness and the counterculture’s disdain for commercial fashion,” says Clowes.

Ad for the Hallmark

Packaging for the Hallmark "Holly" paper party dress, ca. 1967

Nonetheless, “lately there has been a rash of disposable wedding dresses, artists’ garments made from toilet paper and other projects largely disseminated through the Web. Paper manufacturers have continued all along making disposable garments for hospitals and laboratories, and this exhibition includes a small selection of those items,” she says, adding that furniture makers also are experimenting with upholstery woven from paper yarns.

Revised perceptions of disposability may be responsible. Says Clowes, “Rather than being seen as ‘disposable,’ these new approaches to paper now are viewed as being ‘biodegradable.’ Still fun and funky, but also environmentally friendly.”

“Disposable Dresses” opens on Wednesday, Jan. 24, in the Gallery of Design. The show will be up until Sunday, March 11, and is free and open to the public. Erica Spitzer Rasmussen of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., will discuss paper clothing worldwide at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 4, in the Gallery of Design. A reception will follow, and all are welcome.

Children and their adults can create their own paper garments on Saturday, Feb. 17, between 1:30-3:30 p.m. in the gallery. The cost is $7/$5 for Friends of HLATC.

For more information, call the gallery at 262-8815 or http://www.designgallery.wisc.edu.