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

Quilt: Pot of Flowers with Wild Geese (American, 1950s)

Quilt: Pot of Flowers with Wild Geese (American Early 1950s). Cotton plain weave, printed; appliquéd and quilted. By Florence Cowden Peto (American, 1881 – 1970, Tenafly, NJ). Gift of the Peto family (2017.3913). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Recent additions to our outstanding collection of quilts are nine very fine examples created during the 1950s by Florence Cowden Peto, gifted to the MFA by her family, and considered to be the best of the few quilts that she made.

“Florrie” Peto’s quilts are emblematic of the Colonial Revival movement, which had its roots in the late 19th century—a time when Americans waxed nostalgic for the simpler times of pre-industrialized colonial America. Peto maintained a personal interest in textile research, and used historic fabrics in her quilts, such as printed chintz. She made her first quilt in 1926 at age 45,  and continued to create into her 70s. Notwithstanding her creativity, her quilt making practice went hand-in-hand with her scholarship about historic quilts and her active engagement as a designer, teacher, author, historian and lecturer.

The “wild geese” that Peto appliquéd on the quilt shown above is a classic pattern inspired by the seasonal migrations of geese, one that lent itself to numerous variations, as evidenced in this pieced Civil War era quilt.

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