Generation Paper: Museum of Arts and Design Exhibition Review

16 October 2023, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, Costume Society News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews Generation Paper: A Fashion phenom of the 1960s.

Showing from March to August 2023 at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, Generation Paper explores the fascinating fashion phenomenon of paper fashions. Organised by Phoenix Art Museum, the exhibition showcases over 80 garments and accessories crafted from paper (or non-woven textiles). Exhibition highlights include the familiar yet striking Campbell Soup Company’s “Souper Dress”, a dress printed with a soup can motif mimicking Andy Warhol’s iconic pop artwork. 

“Before there was fast fashion, there was paper fashion, which ironically was meant to be a demonstration of paper’s potential to behave like woven fabric,” said Elissa Auther, MAD’s Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and William and the Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator. “Women who ordered the patterns and confidently wore paper dresses—as many did!—beautifully ushered in a new wave of cutting-edge material innovation.”

Paper fashions were first introduced in 1966 as part of a promotional campaign for the Scott Paper Company, and some of the early Scott Paper examples are on show in the exhibition. Their popularity spurred a craze that saw various designers and manufacturers creating their own versions. Paper fashions highlighted the textile innovations of the 1960s such as the development of semi-synthetic and synthetic materials. So although commonly called paper fashion, many of these garments aren’t actually paper and are instead made of fibres such as rayon and polyethylene. The new materials of the age such as rayon, polyester, and other synthetic blends meant that these pieces were not easily recycled and their inherent disposable nature was appealing for young consumers intrigued by the bold, fun designs and space-age vibe of these new fibres.


















“The fashion-design collection at Phoenix Art Museum is home to a rare—and an enviable— selection of paper garments from the 1960s. These garments, including many gifted by longtime museum supporter Kelly Ellman, are in incredible condition and, in some cases, were donated in sealed packaging, never-before opened by the original owner. As a result, audiences get to experience them in pristine form,” said Helen Jean, Phoenix Art Museum’s Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design and curator of the exhibition. 

The exhibition includes a wide range of garments, mostly from the Phoenix Art Museum’s fashion-design collection. These include A-line mini dresses, coats, childrenswear and even bikinis. Bold and graphic designs feature heavily as shown in a trio of matching dresses printed with black and white photographic images that are part of graphic artist Harry Gordon’s Poster Dresses series and include one with a blow up of popular 1960’s folk and rock musician Bob Dylan’s face. The exhibition utilises a wide range of mannequin styles and colours that complement the designs well. Some paper garments are hung on hangers along the walls, some showing fold lines from being preserved in their original packaging. While some items had never been worn before, others had and so the textile and garment conservator utilised tools and techniques such as weighted glass panels, the interlacing of synthetic textile layers and calibrated humidity. 

Many pieces are fashion-led but there are also more unusual options such as paper garments mimicking kitchen countertop and carpet patterns that were created as promotional pieces by appliance manufacturer Viking. Some items are presented in their original sealed packaging while laminated plastics and metallics to enable a rainproof quality to some of the garments. There are matching mother-daughter paper outfits and there is even a knitted paper mini dress by Mars of Ashville, which is notable as by the end of 1966 the brand was the leading manufacturer of disposable fashions producing 80,000 garments per week. The company’s Vice-President Ronald Bard was so persuaded by this trend that he told the New York Times that “five years from now, 75% of the nation will be wearing disposable clothing.” These paper garments were sold in boutiques, catalogues and drugstores across Britain and the United States. Some of these pieces even appeared in store alongside household goods in coordinating designs in major New York department stores such as Gimbels. However, counter to these predictions, by 1970 the fad for paper dresses was over.

As Helen says: “These whimsical garments transport us back to a moment when fashion happened to be a playground for testing new paper and non-woven materials. They also remind us of a time in history defined by the Space Race, counterculture phenomena, and formative social and political movements, all of which informed their designs.”

Costume Society members may remember a fascinating paper that Stamos Fafalios and Myrsini Pichou gave at our Paper themed conference in 2021 about the ATOPOS cvc Paper Garment Collection where members were treated to seeing archive examples from their collection.

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