Paper fashion is at once both entirely alien and entirely illuminating to how we look at fashion today. The exhibition “Paper Fashion” currently showing at Antwerp’s fashion museum starts with packaging, promotions and samples from the paper dress phenomenon that swept across America in March 1966, a forward-thinking form of disposible clothes that meant “every woman could allow herself an extensive wardrobe on a democratic budget”! Launched by the Scott Paper Company, the dresses weren’t actually made of paper by of Dura Weve, a mix of cellulose and rayon, closer to paper in production process and price than cloth. Soon other companies followed sweet; coupons arrived on product packaging, which were collectable and could be exchanged through the post for a frock! And soon paper underwear appeared too, selling at just 15 cents for a pair of knickers! This was exciting stuff in the swingin’ sixties – an era obsessed with the new possibilities science and technology could deliver in creating a brave new world.
The idea is totally bizarre. People were encouraged to think of these as disposable clothes, not to be worn more than once or twice, and this was seen as a very forward-thinking, modern way to live one’s life, as well as the practical aspects to clothes that wouldn’t need to be washed, would never go out of fashion before they’d be gone, could they be enjoyed in greater quantity due to their low-cost price tag. These were exploited in the now rather quaint advertising campaigns – and on display were some really wacky ideas that sprung from the craze, like a paper party set (tablecloth, gift wrap, plates, napkins, cups) that came with a matching paper dress! Now a woman could become the ultimate domestic accessory, blending tastefully and gracefully into her background. Weird and wonderful aside, there are more things in common here with today than at first glance; instant disposability is the reverse of what is today seen as forward thinking and modern. But disposable clothes are today a very important part of the market – one only has to think of Primark with the price-tags that allow even the most modern budget to replenish the wardrobe on a regular basis, and the dozens of brands using third-world sweatshops. Indeed, the three-ring circus we participate in season-in, season-out of “fashion” itself is a form of making clothing disposable, playing with trends and tastes a luxury of the West we wouldn’t have if resources were more limited. So it seems “paper fashion” stands for more than a passing fad, sowing the seeds of consumption we are now deep in the forests of today.
And designers often use paper to create prototypes, as doing tests in the final fabric would be far too costly, so it is no surprise really paper ends up on the catwalk. A collection was on display by Issey Miyake named “Pleats Please”, 1999, were the designer had recycled some paper sheets used to create pleated cloth to create eight new dresses; the results were wonderful, sculptural, armour-like fantasies of origami. In the video of Japanese designer Jum Nakao’s A/W 2007 fashion show, a breath-taking collection, with often enormous, always delicate, intricate, haute couture creations made entirely from paper was completely ripped up by models on cue during the finale, signifying perhaps the fragile, transient nature of even the most high of fashions.
But paper is also a wonderful medium for creating structure, being much more stiff than cloth, something, as well you should know, of a hot topic right now on the runway. MA graduate and winner of the MoMu Award 2009 downstairs shows her final collection, inspired by paper and the way it represents artificiality of normal life. Forms inspired by pop-up books and Japanese origami, the structure is highly unusual and forward-thinking, but often expresses the same delicacy and transparency of paper. The overall effect definitely had that quirky, forward thinking, Antwerpian edge.
For the S/S 2009 haute couture collection at Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld teamed up with Japanese artist Kamo to develop headpieces in paper, shaped like flowers of different kinds, in a delicate, organic style. Of the material, Lagerfeld said, “Paper is the material I prefer to all others on earth. It is the starting point of a drawing, and the conclusion of a photography.” And photography plays a vital role in fashion; some photographers are more celebrated than designers, and the cult of buying magazines which, ever thicker and more glamourous by the decade, almost matches our cult for buying clothes. Like paper dresses, which started as a publicity stunt for Scott Paper Company, the very vehicle for advertising, if not the advertising itself, becomes an obsession.
Some of the most striking paper fashion was not the haute couture, but the “poster dresses”, shift dresses printed with one, huge, vibrant image. In the haze of the 60s paper dress craze, Harry Gordon produced some of the first, with b&w photos of an eye, cat or rose enlarged across the wearer’s body. Sarah Caplan re-visited the poster dress in 1999 with images of the new millennium in full, vibrant Technicolour; twin towers, lightening, a surfer, shark and satellite dish. And during the 90s, Travis Hutchinson produced poster dresses with snaps of glam-punk clubbers in their natural habitat at grimy New York underground hotspot Pyramid, putting a new spin on the idea of paper as trash. And with some photographers more famous than designers, it is apt that we should worship their work in our very clothes, rather than settle for adoration of clothes through their photography.
The medium for photography worship today is by and large through the medium of the magazine, playing a massive role in the life of the fashionista; we are obsessed, spending almost as much on them annually as we do on the clothes themselves. They have become glossier by the decade, thicker and heavier, more expensive, more numerous, and more wide-reaching with the dawn of the internet, Elle having even channel on Youtube. And check this out; fashion journalist, Fag Hag and diva in her own right Anna Piaggi made waves with her Doppie Paggine, double page collages to present her view on trends in Italian Vogue. These were collected for a book, Fashion Algebra, in 1998, and for the launch in Paris, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac (dress), Angela and Giovanni Grimoldi (cape) and Stephen Jones (hat) combined forces for this phenomenal outfit inspired by the pages of magazines. For writing about clothes on paper, Piaggi was awarded with clothes made, well no, inspired by paper.
By turning paper into fashion, and fashion into paper, it brings into sharp perspective the way in which fashion renders clothing and photography somewhat disposable. These clothes are made of no more substances than the pages of a magazine, and with all good rag mags bringing out new editions month upon month, we consume them in high, vast quantities, despite their haute quality and craftsmanship. By merging these two mediums we are forced to ask, whether fashion is any less disposable when it is made of cloth? We shop, we drop, browse websites and yes, fashion magazines for the latest new garments, we wear and tear, forget and forsake, fill hundreds of charity shops with our unwanted crap, and in the end, it was all just a game, fun and frivolity and a race to the checkout. But Lagerfeld makes a very astute point; that paper is the beginning to the creative, the end to the finished and photshopped collections, and without it, the fashion world would be a very different place, for like the magazines we adore, it is a fundamental and very solid part of how we consume our couture.