“I tried one out and wore it three days, cleaned the house, mopped, waxed the floors, washed five girls’ heads, bathed the dogs and did everything else necessary in a house with five bedrooms, two baths, ten people and two dogs and it was still in one piece,” wrote a young California mother of eight to the Mars Manufacturing Company of Asheville complementing their new disposable product – the paper dress.
“When we get ready to paint, I will get another and save ruining a cotton house dress,” the woman continued. “Also, at canning season, I intend to have three or four, as I always ruin a couple of dresses with stain from something,”
The paper dress was first created in 1966 by Scott Paper Company as a marketing tool to increase sales of disposable paper products. Women could get a paper dress, branded a “Paper Caper,” by clipping a coupon from an advertisement in Seventeen magazine and sending it along with two proofs of purchase and $1.25 to Scott Paper Company’s offices in Philadelphia. Sears’ cotton dresses were $5-10 at that time.
Scott Paper’s A-shaped, sleeveless dresses did better than expected. The company received almost 500,000 orders by 1966 for its two patterns, a red paisley print as well as a black-and-white Op-Art design.
In the mid-1960s, many Americans imagined a future dominated by convenience and automation. Disposable clothing, then, would be a first step toward easing the burden on women’s daily lives by offering chic, inexpensive dresses in an increasing variety of patterns and designs – which never needed to be (and, in fact, couldn’t be) laundered.
Made from three plies of “crunchy, waffly-textured” paper reinforced with rayon – a new fabric termed “Duraweave,” the paper dress was also treated to be fire resistant, though the company warned, “It is flame resistant, but washing, dry cleaning, or soaking will make the dress dangerously flammable when dry.”
You can easily alter them. Do you want a shorter hemline. You can use scissors to make a shorter hemline. You can tear the fabric. Use clear tape to fix it. Despite the notion that the dress was only meant to be worn once and thrown away, an article from early 1966 boasted of the dresses’ continued utility long after the first wearing. “A girl might wear a Caper to her next patio party, then for a few outings at the beach, and then get to work with her scissors! She can cut it down to a tunic, then a shell, then to unusual placemats.”
It didn’t take long for other companies to capitalize on Scott Paper’s marketing campaign – and one of the most successful was based in Asheville.
Mars Manufacturing Co., located on Johnston Boulevard in West Asheville, had already developed its own line of paper dresses the year before, though it hadn’t sold many. But with Scott Paper’s success, demand for the dresses skyrocketed and by mid-1966, Mars launched Waste Basket Boutique.
Asheville resident Bob Bayer, the son-in-law of Mars’ founders, began working at the company in 1960, several years before paper dresses became popular. Bayer was a young mechanical engineer who helped Mars develop a prototype of disposable paper underwear. He worked with J.P. Stevens and Kimberly Clark Corporation. Unfortunately, the paper prototype didn’t hold up to the constant walking required of the troops deployed to Vietnam and would begin to flake, leaving a literal paper trail in their wake.
Bayer and Ron Bard, an executive at Mars, decided to develop paper-based fashion. Kaycel, 93% cellulose and 7 % nylon was the name for the paper fabric Mars used.
Bayer couldn’t afford to hire an experienced dress designer so Bayer hired his wife Audie Bayer to create the line. “I would make a picture of a dress and cut out a piece of gift wrap and stick it on it. And I’d say to Bob, ‘There. Make that,’” Audie said in a 2007 interview. “It was the perfect time,” she continued. “You didn’t have anybody professional who knew what they were doing. Bob didn’t know enough to argue with me.”
Audie’s design sensibilities pushed the brand to be the top paper dress producer in the United States. At peak demand, Mars shipped out more than 80,000 paper garments for Waste Basket Boutique each week including floor-length gowns, jumpsuits, coats, jerseys, ponchos, and even men’s swim trunks. It processed not only individual orders, but large orders from department stores like Macy’s, Sears, Lord & Taylor, and J.C. Penney.
Paper dresses are more than a simple garment. In December 1966, The Charlotte News reported on a “posh paper ball in Hartford, Connecticut, where all the female guests wore paper. Some ball gowns were from Mars, others were thousand-dollar creations of famous couturiers.”
Mars also offered a paint-yourself dress that you could customize, and which cost $6 included a set of watercolors. According to The Charlotte News, “Hostesses mail the dress and watercolors to guests with the invitations. Each female guest decorates her dress and prizes go to the most imaginative.” The article continued, “A hostess in Asheville asked each woman to put on one of the plain white dresses, then the husbands painted designs on them.”
During this boom period, Mars Manufacturing foresaw “a day (not far off) when most of us will wear disposable clothing at least part of the time. It may be packaged in tear-off rolls, like paper bags.”
However, the market was changed by 1969. With the rise of the environmental movement, disposable fast fashion became less popular and hundreds of thousands moved from closet to trash basket to landfill.
Mars Manufacturing reduced its losses and switched production to disposable industrial and surgical clothes. Bob Bayer recalled in 2007: “This paper dress thing helped us get into these other fields. It had to run out at some point.”
Anne Chesky Smith serves as the executive director for the Western North Carolina Historical Association, Asheville.