Paper dresses originated in 1966 when the Scott Paper Company of America began a promotion for their products, toilet paper and paper tissues. For $1.25 and a coupon from the product you could send off for a paisley or op-art 'Paper Caper' dress. Demand exceeded the 500,000 garments produced and other manufacturers soon followed with designs to promote their own products.
These dresses were very fragile and light sensitive. They were made to be worn once or twice and thrown away. Paper underwear was also manufactured but did not sell well.
The throw away concept fitted the mood of the era. Paper dresses required no sewing skills to make adjustments, just a pair of scissors and sticky tape or glue. It was even possible for a party hostess to purchase matching coasters, place cards and paper dresses to send to all her guests.
The 'paper' used in these dresses was not really paper in the usual sense. The original fabric, called DuraWeve, had been developed for surgical and industrial wear. This was paper in the sense of being a non-woven assembly of plant fibres but the wood pulp fibres were surrounded by a mesh of rayon fibres and held together with a latex adhesive. A variety of similar non-woven materials using man-made fibres were later developed to offer more strength, flexibility or fire resistance.
Some manufacturers used paper dresses to advertise their products. The makers of Campbell’s Soup sold a simple A-line dress printed with soup labels in a design inspired by Andy Warhol’s well known artwork. The label read "The Souper Dress. No Cleaning. No Washing. It’s carefree, fire resistant unless washed or cleaned. To refreshen, press lightly with a warm iron. 80% Cellulose, 20% Cotton.” These dresses, disposable in their day, have now become collectors items. A Souper Dress recently fetched more than $3000 at auction.
The throw away fashion was short lived and the idea of disposability was overtaken by a growing ecological awareness, which demanded recycling rather than disposal.
The paper dress is sometimes forgotten but is not dead. Tyvek, a modern development of the earlier fabrics, is widely used for hospital and industrial clothing and is now favoured by fashion designers. It is machine washable, tear-proof, water resistant and recyclable. Singer Bjork wore a Tyvek jacket designed by Hussein Chalayan for the cover of her best-selling 1995 album, Post.