Pulp Fashion Goes Pop!

The art of Isabelle de Borchgrave is in itself a type of recycling. Inspired by sumptuous costume and textiles from the past, de Borchgrave recreates some of history’s most iconic fashions in the surprising medium of paper. Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, on view at the Legion of Honor through June 12, displays paper outfits derived from those seen in European paintings, museum collections, photographs, sketches and even literary descriptions. De Borchgrave’s art practice seems particularly relevant in today’s conservation-minded climate in which “recycle and reuse” has become a mantra for artists and fashionistas alike.

Paper fashion was not always associated with such principled objectives. In the late 1960s, when de Borchgrave was just beginning her career, paper dresses captured the cultural zeitgeist not only for their pithy design and novelty, but specifically for their disposability.

Marketed to the hostess set, the Scott Paper company spearheaded the trend, while Hallmark created paper dresses designed to match place mats or napkins, and Wippette Sportswear even sold them in cans. Paper dress parties were all the rage, and in fact, the first piece that de Borchgrave ever made was a paper dress that she wore to such a party!

Paper dress, ca. 1967
United States, North Carolina
Printed paper(polyester & cellulose)
96 x 67 cm (37 13/16 x 26 3/8 in.)
Gift of Diane Appleton, 1982.41.2 

Paper dresses were often sold by brands famous for utilitarian products. In an effort to bolster their youth demographic, Breck shampoo included a pack of two mod-style miniskirt paper dresses with the purchase of Go Go Light hair lightener. Campbell Soup capitalized on the fad as well by creating the "The Souper Dress" (after Andy Warhol), which could be purchased by sending in two labels, eleven dollars and your dress size to the soup company. The ad campaign boasted, "It's a pretty groovy deal just for enjoying Campbell's Vegetable Soup."

After Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987)
The Souper Dress, ca. 1967
"paper" (cellulose and cotton); screen printed
94 cm (37  in.)
Museum purchase, Barbara Donohoe Jostes Fund, 1998.69

Harry Gordon sold his “poster dresses” for three dollars apiece; other fashion designers, such as Elisa Daggs, Bonnie Cashin, Rudi Gernreich, Bill Blass and Pierre Cardin, sold their paper dresses for sums that ranged from ten to two hundred dollars.

Harry Gordon (designer), American, 1930–2007
Poster Dress, Ltd. (manufacturer), British, active 1966–1968
"Eye" disposable dress, ca. 1968
Wood pulp and rayon paper; screen printing
86.4 x 114.3 cm (34 x 45 in.)
Museum purchase, Barbara Donohoe Jostes Bequest Fund, 1999.41

Cheap, fun and definitively pop, paper dresses were worn once or twice and then discarded. As the fad took hold, paper dresses began to appeal to a wider audience and afforded lower-income women the opportunity to purchase inexpensive garments that appeared luxurious and expensive. The upkeep of a high-fashion gown would have cost a pretty penny, but after a particularly raucous party, a paper dress could be simply thrown away.

Elisa Daggs (designer), American
Gold Paper Dress(uniform), 1960
Gold "paper" (metalized kyron with fused rayon)
81.3 cm (32  in.)
Gift of Lin Mangiante, 1998.123a-b

In the late 1960s, America was in upheaval. Sociologists of the day interpreted the paper dress fad as representative of a youth culture ambivalent toward its past and anxious about the future, focusing instead on the instantaneous, the present. But inevitably like the easily crinkled dresses, the fad soon crumpled, and the dresses were relegated to archival closets and museum collections.

Paper dress: Nixon, ca. 1968
United States
61 x 41 cm (24  x 16 1/8 in.)
Museum purchase, Art Trust Fund, 1994.72

Today, it seems unthinkable to purchase clothing only to toss it into the landfill rather than the washing machine. But the ingenuity, frivolity and exuberance of these designs represent an inventive (if quirky) moment in the history of fashion, and provide a wearable document of pop culture.