This I Accomplish, Part III (in memory of Dr. Monni Adams, 1920-2014)

Pictorial Quilt (American, Athens, GA), 1895–98. Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910). Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik (64.619). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Black Art, an international quarterly; Volume 3, Number 4

The pleasure of pulling a book off the shelf in our towering Textile and Fashion Arts library is enhanced by the occasional glimmer of some remote memory or recognition, as I open to an image, a textual passage, a name. In my search for material written about the iconic Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers, I located an essay in the journal Black Art, an international quarterly.  The author: Marie Jeanne Adams. Then came the glimmer—I realized she was the distinguished scholar and educator of African and Oceanic art to whom I was introduced some twenty odd years ago as “Monni.”

Dr. Monni Adams speaking in 2011 at her exhibition Masked Festivals of Canton Bo (Ivory Coast), West Africa at the Tozzer
Library, Harvard University. Web source: Tribal Arts Magazine (click image for web page).

Thus, I came to learn that Marie Jeanne Adams changed her surname at some point in her life after publishing The Harriet Powers Pictorial Quilts in Black Art, the possible reasons for which remained a mystery according to tributes published after her death. A petite woman of exceptional presence and personality, Monni’s incisive wit, energy and vitality were extraordinary and left an indelible impression.  She had already reached the age of 59 when she published the essay I refer to here in 1979, long before I met her, and she never ceased contributing to the fields of anthropology and art history through her teaching, curatorial accomplishments, field research and writing. Her last paper was published in African Arts at the age of 91; she died on December 24, 2014. I was greatly pleased to have this renewed connection to Monni Adams by way of Harriet Powers and her quilts, and a chance to further explore the MFA’s textile treasure through an illuminating study.

Adams begins with a general history and description of the Pictorial Quilt (see also This I Accomplish, Part I and Part II) and places the quilt in the broader context of “folk art.” Discourse I’ve been exposed to about usage of this term and other labels such as “outsider art” points to a constellation of problematic issues relating to culturally-biased, limiting, and inaccurate representations of artists assigned to this class and the work they create. Elaborating on her frame of reference, Adams makes the following comment:

In terms of value or importance, folk art might also be called the art of powerlessness for it usually deals not with problems of power or authority or large spiritual issues but with small purposes or trivial concerns, so that it can afford to be cheerful, fanciful, unambiguous and innocuous.”

Detail, Block #14: “The creation of animals continues.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Adams’ classification of the quilt, in an essay written forty years ago, proves itself inadequate by her own admission, as we shall see later. Needless to say, my real intention here is to follow her thought process as one person seeking to comprehend and interpret the object itself through the mind and hands of the maker, Harriet Powers.

The Biblical themes in Powers’ Pictorial Quilt:, such as Job praying for his enemies (#1); Adam and Eve in the garden (#4); Jonah and the Whale (#6) and the Crucifixion of Christ (#15)—as well as scenes marking historic celestial events: The dark day of May 19, 1780 (#2); The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833 (#8), and The red light night of 1846 (#12)—form the thematic subjects by which Harriet Powers gave expression to her convictions and declared her faith. Adams contends the maker gave deep thought to her compositions in the MFA’s quilt, the second of only two known quilts by Powers, demonstrating increased mastery of complexity and scale:

Quilt block #4: “Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve tempted by the serpent. Adam’s rib by which Eve was made. The sun and the moon. God’s all-seeing eye and God’s merciful hand.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The scope of her interest shows in the many different kinds of motifs she introduces, representing men, women, children, large animals, birds and other small creatures, fantasy beasts of Revelations, trumpets and a bell, a house, a boat, a coffin and special symbols such as the hand of God, stars, comets, and other cosmic bodies.”

…and in the following four images, Adams looks closely at the maker’s visual vocabulary by pointing out communicative details, such as spikes of frozen breath of the mule (#11); the choice of gold metallic thread to outline the figures of Bob Johnson and Kate Bell (rich sinners, according to Powers), elaborated in a series of loops to depict a crown on Kate’s head (#13); and blood and water streaming from the side of the crucified Christ conveying a visceral experience of horrific suffering (#15).

Detail, quilt block #11: “Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895. A woman frozen while at prayer. A woman frozen at a gateway. A man with a sack of meal frozen. Icicles formed from the breath of a mule. All blue birds killed. A man frozen at his jug of liquor.” ~Harriet Powers (Click image for fuller detail of this quilt block.) Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Quilt block #13: “Rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Detail of Kate Bell’s crown, quilt block #13 (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Quilt block #15: “The crucifixion of Christ between the two thieves. The sun went into darkness. Mary and Martha weeping at his feet. The blood and water run from his right side.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Celestial bodies, depicted in all but one quilt square, stand out as meticulously worked elements. Quilt blocks #2, #8, and #12 in particular illustrate historic atmospheric events that occurred across the skies of the United States, stories of which spread by way of oral tradition; Adams suggests these compositions reveal Powers’ greatest gifts:

She carefully varies yet re-uses patterned cloth pieces in the appliquéd figures and repeats types of motifs, such as the heavenly bodies, devices that subtly link the scenes together…She lavishes attention on these heavenly bodies; they give the scenes their scale and aura of importance. In contrast to the other figures, each of which is formed with one piece of appliqué, the cosmic motifs are composed of tiny pieces of cloth, painstakingly fitted into sharply pointed forms of contrasting color, and sewn together by hand.”

Center, quilt block #2: “The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Detail views of Powers’ stitching of celestial imagery (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

By following Adam’s observations, from small details to broader thematic ones, and based on how the Pictorial Quilt was progressively stitched, I learned that the individual squares were connected in vertical columns. It stands to reason that Powers made deliberate choices about the arrangement of scenes. Adams’ close reading of the quilt’s visual elements and their configurations reveals that the scenes are consolidated thematically, crystallizing narrative poles of punishment and redemption; of apocalypse and salvation—spiritual concerns of scale that hardly conform to an “art of powerlessness”:

The more one examines the style and the content of Harriet Powers’ work, the more one sees that it projects a grand spiritual vision that breaks out of the confines of folk art. Pondering the pictorial content of each scene and its relationships to the others leads one to realize the depth of her concern for and how well she grasped the apocalyptic yet redemptive vision of Christian doctrine.”

If we look at quilt block #13, at the bottom of the third column, we see what is arguably the most important icon of God’s redemptive power as envisioned by Powers: “The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia…”  Betts reigns supreme as the largest single figure on the quilt, foregrounding the rich sinners who await their eternal punishment (could Bob Johnson and Kate Bell have been former slave owners)? In her methodical synthesis of the connective tissue of Power’s fifteen quilt blocks, Adams locates Betts as the essential fulcrum of a dynamic narrative playing out across the surface of Harriet Powers’ creation:

Detail view of Betts the hog, quilt block #13: “…The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.” ~Harriet Powers (Click image for fuller detail of this quilt block)

Bett’s flight provides a scarcely veiled reference to the path of runaway slaves of pre-Civil War days. This image crimps together at this central point the grand meaning of the religious theme and the struggle for freedom from slavery and suggests a parallel between Mrs. Powers’ faith in the Biblical stories of deliverance and her vision of her life experience as a freed slave. Viewed in this light, juxtaposing events within the first four columns from the Old Testament and from the skies over the United States makes sense as comparable old orders. The last column stands alone as a lasting message of deliverance.”

If Betts stands as a symbol for the human struggle for freedom and the possibility of a long and hard-won journey to independence—then I observe, in higher relief, the subtle line of bright orange fabric surrounding the contours of the hog. Powers placed two layers of fabric together (laying the brownish fabric over the orange layer), stitched the outline of Betts’ body within the cut edges of the two layers,  and then, with calculated attention and patience—not unlike her painstaking rendering of celestial bodies—the maker carefully trimmed the edges of each fabric layer close to her line of stitching, starting with the top layer. She chose to trim the orange layer quite close to the first, leaving just enough to reveal a glowing sliver of incandescent radiance: a clue that Betts the hog is no ordinary farm animal.

Monni Adams (1920-2014) with one of her masks (personal collection). Web source: The Boston Globe; Photo: Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer. Click image for web page.

A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

Woman’s paper dress, labeled Elisa Daggs (American, 1966)

Woman’s paper dress, labeled Elisa Daggs (American, 1966). Front view, non-woven fabric. Label reads: “A paper fashion by Elisa Daggs.” Gift of Yvonne Gunderson (2003.772). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Welcome back to our 1960s paper dress odyssey! Today’s post takes a look at the impressive range of what constituted paper fashion during an explosive, but short-lived trend. The example shown above, created by high-end designer Elisa Daggs, takes a decided detour from the sleeveless A-line shift dresses featured in my earlier posts—namely, our  Souper Dress (about 1967) and our Hollywood Dress (1968). The flat, open canvas of their basic, unadorned construction was exploited, quite literally, as a wearable poster—giving rise to a slew of the latest paper dresses emblazoned with graphic images of op art, pop art, celebrities, political candidates, and other popular images that blurred boundaries between “high” art and “low” culture.

Woman’s paper “Souper Dress” (American, about 1967). Distributed by Campbell Soup Company (American, founded 1960s). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed. Lucy A. Morse Fund in memory of Kate Morse (2003.135). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Woman’s “Yellow Pages” paper dress (American, about 1966). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed; cotton plain weave (bias tape) trim. Label reads: “Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, N.C.” Textile Income Purchase Fund (2003.136). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

The MFA’s Yellow Pages Dress (about 1966, below left) with a tie collar embellishment extending beyond the flat paper plane, and bearing an understated collage pattern of print advertisements, sits somewhere between the zeitgeist-inspired sensibilities of 1960s poster fashion, and alternative manifestations of disposable ready-to-wear for women, as seen in Elisa Daggs’ conventional rendering of a woman’s dress (below right) with ruffled collar, loose matching sleeves, and a belted waist.

Woman’s “Yellow Pages” paper dress (American, about 1966). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed; cotton plain weave (bias tape) trim. Textile Income Purchase Fund (2003.136). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Woman’s paper dress, labeled Elisa Daggs (American, 1966). Back view, non-woven fabric. Label reads: “A paper fashion by Elisa Daggs.” Gift of Yvonne Gunderson (2003.772). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the MFA’s Textile and Fashion Art research library, I located a book by fashion curator and collector Jonathan Walford, Ready to Tear: Paper Fashions of the 1960s. Walford is said to have acquired an example of nearly every paper dress ever manufactured. Included in his book are examples of dresses that Elisa Daggs designed for the aviation industry. BOAC and Trans World Airlines introduced paper uniforms for their stewardesses in 1967. For TWA, Daggs designed four distinctive uniform styles for travel to Italy, France, Hawaii, and on New York to Los Angeles Ambassador service. For first class transatlantic flights to Paris, Daggs created a gold foil uniform with a standing ruffled collar and belt. She also designed a purple and lime-green sari for Air India as a promotional campaign, available for the price of $5.00 by mail order from Air India’s public relations department in New York.

Paper fashion by Elisa Daggs commissioned by TWA and Air India. Left: Gold foil stewardess dress for first-class service on transatlantic TWA flights to Paris, 1967. Image courtesy Augusta Auctions. Right: Paper sari for Air India, 1967. Image courtesy Jonathan Walford and the Fashion History Museum, Cambridge, Ontario. Click image for web source.

Click for description and collections data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Woman’s “Hollywood” paper dress (American, 1968)

Front view: Woman’s “Hollywood” paper dress (American, 1968). Printed cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, by exchange (2003.136). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Imagine a dress made from paper. It could be a simple A-line style, or as elaborate as a wedding dress. It can easily be altered with a pair of scissors. It has a low price tag. But perhaps its most appealing quality is its disposable nature as “throwaway” fashion. The paper dress has arrived! A promotional gimmick gone viral, the disposable dress was a fleeting fashion trend that managed to completely escape my awareness as a child growing up in the early 1960s, making my recent introduction to the handful of disposable paper dresses in our collection so captivating! The very idea of disposable fashion may seem odd today, but viewed in the context of its time—an era that favored ephemerality over durability, carefree conveniences, consumerism and a thirst for the next new trend—its phenomenal rise in popularity is not all that surprising.

Back view: Woman’s “Hollywood” paper dress (American, 1968). Printed cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, by exchange (2003.136). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Redeemable coupon for the “Paper Caper” dress by Scott Paper Company, available in a black & white optical or red paisley print. Mademoiselle, 1966

Related posts in which I feature the MFA’s Souper Dress (Campbell Soup Company) and the Yellow Pages Dress (Mars of Asheville, NC) introduce readers to the birth of the “Paper Caper” dress, a promotional sideline by Scott Paper Company used to advance its latest paper-based technologies. There were two basic A-line styles to choose from, redeemable by sending in a coupon with $1.00 and $.25 for postage and handling. After unprecedented sales (500,000) in a matter of months, Scott Paper discontinued its production of the paper dress to focus on its main product lines: paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, and the like.

Other companies and designers seized this moment to jump on the “Paper Caper” bandwagon, producing their own variations to compete in a demanding market for disposable fashion and contributing to its explosive popularity. Universal Studios embraced the ready-made canvas of this hot item to promote its most popular stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, and others, rendered in the Warhol-like portrait aesthetic emblematic of Pop Art and the blurring of boundaries between “high” art and “low” culture.

MFA’s “Hollywood” dress on exhibit in the contemporary wing in 2012 (front view). Click image for web source.
“Hollywood” dress, back view. Click image for web source.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

This I Accomplish, Part II

Pictorial Quilt (American, Athens, GA), 1895–98. Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910). Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik (64.619). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The historic contexts surrounding the iconic quilts made by former Georgia slave, Harriet Powers, are so fascinating and rich. Only two of her quilts are known to survive, and each is housed in a major Museum collection. Her earlier quilt, known as the Bible Quilt, is at the Smithsonian, and the Pictorial Quilt, made ten years hence, is here at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In last month’s post, I explored accounts related to the earlier of the two quilts: stories and texts that gave rise to a fuller understanding of the maker herself. With that as an introduction, let’s now take a closer look at the quilt we so proudly steward and cherish here in Boston.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 1st row above (blocks 3 & 4), 2nd row below (blocks 8 & 9). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It is not known whether the Pictorial Quilt was created by Harriet Powers on commission, or whether she sold it after it was completed, but we do know that her quilt was presented as a gift by female faculty members, or wives of Atlanta University professors, to Presbyterian minister Rev. Charles Cuthbert Hall (1852-1908) when Hall was serving as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. Those who read my previous post on Harriet Powers and her quilts will recall that in 1895, Jennie Smith, the young artist/educator who purchased the Bible Quilt from Powers, placed it on exhibit at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, GA. It is quite possible that the women who had ties to Atlanta University saw the Bible Quilt at the Exposition, were impressed by what they saw, and approached the maker about creating another quilt.

The year of the gift is thought to be 1898, marking the beginning of a stable home for Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt in the life of the Hall family for six decades. For some portion of those years, the quilt was hung in a Victorian summer home built by Charles Hall in Westport Point, MA, which he named “Synton House.” It was installed with simple tacks on the wall of the 2nd floor hallway. After Charles passed away in 1908, his eldest son Rev. Basil Douglas Hall (1888-1979), also a minister, inherited the quilt when he was twenty years of age.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 2nd row above (blocks 8 & 9); 3rd row below (blocks 13 & 14). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Pictorial Quilt’s story takes a turn in 1960, when Basil Hall was seventy years of age, and finances were tight. At around this time, he sold Synton House to his son-in-law, George Utter. He also decided to gather up the family quilt, along with notecards inscribed with handwritten descriptions of each story block, and a small photograph of Harriet Powers taken around the time of the quilt’s gifting to his father—removed them from Synton House—and brought them to the textile department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It would appear that Basil Hall may not have made an appointment, judging by the words of Adolph S. Cavallo, Textile Curator at the time:

A man walked in one day and put it on the table…I had never seen a quilt like that…the richness of her [Harriet Power’s] imagination was fascinating, so touching, so sweet, and so human.”

This moment was indeed a turning point, as Basil Hall offered to sell the quilt to the MFA, leaving it temporarily in Cavallo’s care as the proposition was taken into consideration.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 1st row above (blocks 1 & 2); 2nd row below (blocks 6 & 7). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

For Adolph Cavallo, the issue would not concern the purchase itself: rather, it was the way he would approach the acquisition, which he believed would carry more prestige if the quilt were to become part of a certain donor collection. The donor Cavallo had in mind was Maxim Karolik, who, together with his wife Martha Codman Karolik, made a decision around 1935 to build their collection in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts. Karolik wrote of the collecting philosophy that he and his wife shared:

People who would like to see representative works by the well-known and much-praised painters will find them in this collection; but they are incidental to a larger purpose, which is to tell the whole story through that period—the story of the known, the little known, and the unknown artists. Only an ensemble of all types of creative work, I believe, can adequately show what happened in that period. The well-known names—the popular Stars—are only part of the story.”

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 3rd row (block 15). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

With Adolph Cavallo as intermediary, Maxim Karolik readily agreed to purchase the Pictorial Quilt from Rev. Basil Hall with the intention of gifting it as a bequest to the MFA. Karolik passed away in 1963, and a year later, the Pictorial Quilt and its related documentation formally entered the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Pictorial Quilt is impressively large: 69″ x 105.” Its presence in the confines of the upstairs hallway of Synton House must have loomed large, especially for the children and young members of the family who must have spent countless hours together upstairs, away from the adults, captivated by the lively spirit and storytelling qualities of Powers’ magnificent quilt. Robert Utter, a great-grandson of Charles C. Hall, recalled spending many weekends at Synton House and remembered he and his younger sister Loraine making up their own tales about the quilt blocks. I picture in my mind’s eye the imaginary universe conjured by these young siblings, bringing them close to the quilt—free to explore the multi-patterned fabrics and appliqué shapes with their fingertips—extending the quilt’s life as an object imbued with creative vitality, and becoming a part of it.

‰Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 3rd row (block 11). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.‰

In a series of telephone interviews in 2008 with Kyra E. Hicks, author of This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces, Robert Utter shared his recollections of the Pictorial Quilt and would go on to divulge a long-held personal secret, the memories of which surfaced upon his first direct encounter with the quilt some forty years later. The year was 2001, when the MFA organized an exhibition to showcase the Museum’s growing folk art collection. American Folk prominently featured the Pictorial Quilt, regarded by many to be the single most important object on display. Robert Utter’s mother organized a family excursion to the Museum to visit the quilt that in 1964, had been accessioned into its textile collection.

At the time of the exhibition, Utter was 48 years of age:

I dreaded seeing the quilt. I sensed that I might have done something to the quilt or dreamt I might have. The whole family was there…Then I saw it and yes, I realized that I had done something. I was a little shocked, queasy…”

The young Robert Utter—using a Bic® ballpoint pen with black ink—drew eyes on some of the figures.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 2nd row (block 5, with penned-in eyes). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I never told anyone.”

I find myself particularly touched by this story, especially when I see these wide-open, penned-in eyes looking out at the viewer, enchanting us with spiky eyelashes and an innocent stare. On the very figure that Harriet Powers identified as a “seven-headed beast and 10 horns” (click here for complete quilt block descriptions), the alluring expression bestowed upon the creature at the hand of a young child seems amazingly in step with the playful, imaginative spirit of her quilt. Standing in front of the quilt that he knew intimately as a child, Robert Utter showed his older sister Katie the places where he had applied his Bic® pen. Her reaction was to turn around to the others and declare:

My brother did the eyes!”

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 2nd row (block 9, with penned-in eyes). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Well, we know that Robert Utter drew some of the eyes—the others were appliquéd by Harriet Powers to the quilt top. But Utter’s admission did resolve a puzzling question for some familiar with the Pictorial Quilt, who wondered why Powers would solely hand-stitch the eyes on her Bible Quilt characters, then use two separate methods to achieve the same purpose on the Pictorial Quilt. This is purely speculative, but my own thought is that Harriet Powers intentionally appliquéd some of her figures with eyes and chose to leave some without—achieving a particular aesthetic result that was pleasing to her.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 1st row (block 3, with penned-in eyes). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Stories such as this one, involving a child’s creative impulse, locates the Pictorial Quilt in a living relationship with human actors throughout the life of its history and makes me wonder what Harriet Powers would have thought of the young boy’s inspired additions to her quilt?

Author Kyra Hicks includes comprehensive resources pertaining to Harriet Powers’ quilts’ histories and exhibition records, annotated bibliographies, and timelines in this book.

Kyra E. Hicks, author of This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (Black Threads Press, 2009) is credited for providing the primary source material for this post. Her book is a comprehensive resource, and a must-read for any person interested in learning more about Harriet Powers and her quilts. I find pleasure and inspiration in Hicks’ highly personal accounts that engender for her readers a sense of excitement and suspense as she follows her nose to uncover myriad details. I also appreciate the questions that she poses for herself, and for her readers, in the process of piecing her research together. Throughout her book, one experiences the author’s palpable reverence for the person of Harriet Powers and her creative mind.

There is still more to come on this subject. Until then, you can explore close-up images and descriptions of each of the fifteen quilt blocks, as told in the artists’ own words, on our collections page at mfa.org.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

Woman’s “Yellow Pages” paper dress (American, about 1966)

Woman’s “Yellow Pages” paper dress (American, about 1966). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed; cotton plain weave (bias tape) trim. Label reads: “Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, N.C.” Textile Income Purchase Fund (2003.136). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The disposable paper dress was an explosive, but fleeting fashion trend in the 1960s at a time when themes of advertising, mass-production, consumerism, and attitude shifts that favored ephemerality over durability were defining an ever-changing era. American pop art, embodied by the works of contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and other artists, made a splash on the ready-made canvas of the paper dress. The MFA’s paper “Souper Dress,” distributed by Campbell Soup Company, is a well-known example of fashion appropriating pop art—in this case, inspired by Warhol’s iconic “Campbell’s Soup Cans” paintings.

The“Yellow Pages” paper dress shown above, decorated with an all-over printed pastiche of Yellow Pages advertisements and sporting a tie collar—together with the MFA’s Souper Dress“—was part of a dual fashion acquisition in 2003, among the earliest of the MFA’s purchases by way of internet auction.

(Left): Advertisement for the “Yellow Pages” paper dress. (Upper right): Paper dress packaging. (Lower right): “Yellow Pages” dress on a vintage clothing rack. Click image for web source.

What’s black and yellow and read all over? The Yellow Pages dress! It’s wild, wacky and wonderful. A flashy paper put-on that’s just plain fun to wear. We’ll send your Yellow Pages Dress to you just about long enough to cover your knees—then with a pair of scissors you can cut it to any length you like.”

~ Teaser for the “Yellow Pages” paper dress advertisement

The first “throwaway” paper dresses originated with Scott Paper Company in 1966 as a promotional gimmick to advance its line of paper products (napkins, paper towels, paper plates, and more) and its development of new, improved paper-based technology. For the cost of $1.00 + 25 cents for shipping and handling, along with a coupon clipping, thousands of customers sent in their orders. Despite the phenomenal sales metrics (500,000 dresses sold within eight  months) Scott Paper had no intentions to diversify along the lines of fashion. This provided an opportune moment for other companies and designers to join the frenzy and capitalize on the high demand for this popular novelty item.

“Yellow Pages” paper dress label, “Waste Basket Boutique” by Mars of Asheville, N.C.

One such company was Mars of Asheville, NC, a hosiery manufacturer that went on to produce paper for fashion, becoming a giant in the disposable fashion industry. Mars produced the “Yellow Pages” dress in the MFA’s collection. The company’s tagline, “The Pioneer in Disposable Fashion,” along with its “Waste Basket Boutique” line, was a tangible expression of the pervasive throwaway culture of the 1960s—a way of engaging with the new “modern age” that valued unencumbered convenience and visions of the future.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Woman’s Paper “Souper Dress” (American, about 1967)

Woman’s paper “Souper Dress” (American, about 1967). Distributed by Campbell Soup Company (American, founded 1960s). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed. Lucy A. Morse Fund in memory of Kate Morse (2003.135). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

During the 1960s—a time of societal flux and distinguished by many short-lived fashion trends and fads—this dress, inspired by Andy Warhol’s iconic work Campbell’s Soup Cans, was mass produced as part of a fashion phenomenon gone viral: the disposable dress.

Magazine advertisement for the “Souper Dress,” SEVENTEEN, June 1968

It all started with a marketing promotion by Scott Paper, an American company that produced toilet tissue, baby wipes, napkins, paper towels and other products. Scott marketed two styles of sleeveless shift dresses made with a new non-woven cellulose based material called Dura-Weve. For the cost of $1.00 + 25 cents for shipping and handling, along with a coupon clipping, anyone could receive a paper dress in the mail. Within eight months, Scott sold 500,000 dresses and soon other companies and designers jumped on the “throwaway” fashion train.

Campbell’s “Souper Dress” package enclosure

 

The March 17, 1967 issue of TIME Magazine printed Fashion: Real Live Paper Dolls with a running list of designers and manufacturers responding to the high demand for paper fashion with their own expressive lines. Many styles were made to encourage creative alterations and embellishments, easily achieved with a pair of scissors and glue. At an extremely reasonable price, anywhere from $1.00 for a simple A-line dress, to $15.00 for a bridal gown, disposable paper fashion was all the rage. By 1968, changes in fashion and an increasing awareness of environmental impact led to the obsolescence of yet another fashion trend.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department