By Virginia Knight, a fashion historian and personal stylist who lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Asheville may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think “fashion.” As a fashion historian, I can confirm that it’s more common for folks in my field to flock to New York, Los Angeles, or London, where world-renowned museums boast large fashion collections.
What I like best about my job, however, is that amazing fashion history is everywhere. Nowhere has this been more true than right here in Asheville, where I first learned of a topic that would take me around the world and back: the paper dress.
The story starts in 1966, when Scott Paper Company created a marketing campaign where customers sent in a coupon and shipping money to receive a dress made of a cellulose material called “Dura-Weave.” These paper dresses quickly became one of the most iconic trends of late-1960s American fashion.
“Gone are laundry bills and cleaner’s bills,” proclaimed an article in Time. Scissors could now handle alterations previously done by needle and thread, and the short, simple silhouette was the perfect background for the bold prints and Op Art designs en vogue. Paper dresses found an unlikely foothold with airlines, as non-woven fabrics became a popular material for stewardess outfits. In addition, paper clothing was a nifty solution to the problem of “laundry in outer space” (albeit a problem exaggerated for marketing’s sake).
Manufacturers were convinced paper clothing would change the landscape of the clothing industry, and the largest manufacturer of paper dresses was Mars Manufacturing Company here in Asheville, North Carolina. Ronald Bard, vice president of sales at Mars, reported in December of 1966 that his company had sold 500,000 paper dresses in the six months previous. Bard anticipated selling close to one million units in the next half-year. For a dress that could only be worn five or six times, these high sales were all the more impressive.
The paper dress’ contribution to American design was recognized in 1966, when Robert Bayer, vice president at Mars, was asked to donate a variety of paper products to a United States Exhibition representing “excellent American Industrial Design.” This exhibit traveled to Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad in the USSR and to West Berlin, Germany, with various styles of paper dresses on display.
By 1968, the paper dress craze was already beginning to cool. Although these garments were never intended to last more than a few wearings, there seemed to be disappointment from buyers when this turned out to be true. In addition, the “hippie” movement, with its back to nature viewpoint and strong anti-pollution message, was effectively changing public perceptions on the subject of a “disposable society.”
Ronald Bard’s 1966 prediction that “Five years from now 75% of the nation will be wearing disposable clothing” didn’t come true, but the paper dress has continued to fascinate. While a student at UNC Asheville, I wrote my senior thesis on the paper dress. Years later, as a graduate student studying fashion history, I was working at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Cutting through the permanent fashion exhibit one day, a bright op-art print caught my eye.
It was a paper dress, and the museum label told me it was made by Mars Manufacturing in Asheville. Living in Asheville once again, I love knowing that paper dresses survive in museum collections around the world, many with the same label: a reminder that engaging fashion history is not just within the purview of select cities, but all around us.