Paper dresses from the 1960s were made in Asheville by Mars Manufacturing Co.

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“I tried one and wore it for three days, cleaned the house, mopped the floor, waxed the floors, washed five girls’ heads, bathed the dogs and did everything else in a house with it. five bedrooms, two bathrooms, ten people and two dogs and she was still in one piece,” wrote a young Californian mother of eight at the Mars Manufacturing Company of Asheville as she completed their new disposable product – the cotton dress. paper.

“When we’re ready to paint, I’ll grab another one and avoid ruining a cotton housecoat,” the woman continued. “Also, come canning season, I plan to have three or four, because I always mess up a few dresses with stains of something,”

Originally designed in 1966 as a marketing gimmick by the Scott Paper Company to sell more disposable paper products, the paper dress quickly became a fad. Women could obtain a paper dress, branded “Paper Caper”, by cutting a coupon from an ad in Seventeen magazine and mailing it along with two proofs of purchase and $1.25 to Scott Paper offices Company in Philadelphia. (In contrast, a cotton dress from Sears cost between $5 and $10 at the time.)

The A-shaped sleeveless dresses sold much better than Scott Paper expected. By the end of 1966, the company had received nearly 500,000 orders for the two designs it offered – a red paisley print and a black and white Op-Art design.

Many Americans in the mid-1960s envisioned a future defined by automation and convenience. Disposable clothing would therefore be a first step in easing the burden of everyday life for women by offering chic and inexpensive dresses in an increasing variety of patterns and designs – which have never needed to be (and, in fact, could not be) washed. .

Mars Manufacturing paper dresses were not washable.

Made from three layers of “crispy, waffle texture” paper reinforced with rayon – a new fabric called “Duraweave”, the paper dress has also been treated to be flame resistant, although the company has warned: “It is flame resistant, but washable, dry cleaning or soaking will make the dress dangerously flammable when dry.

They could be easily changed. Want a shorter hem? Just take a pair of scissors. Tear a hole in the fabric? Secure it with clear tape. Despite the idea that the dress was only meant to be worn once and thrown away, an early 1966 article boasted of the dresses’ continued usefulness long after first wear. “A girl can wear a Caper to her next patio party, then for a few beach outings, then get to work with her scissors! She can strip it down to a tunic, then a shell, then sets of unusual table.

It didn’t take long for other companies to take advantage of Scott Paper’s marketing campaign – and one of the most successful was based in Asheville.

Mars Manufacturing Co., located on Johnston Boulevard in West Asheville, had already developed its own line of paper dresses the previous year, although it hadn’t sold many. But with the success of Scott Paper, demand for the dresses skyrocketed and in mid-1966 Mars launched Waste Basket Boutique.

Martian manufacturing

Asheville resident Bob Bayer, son-in-law of the Mars founders, started working at the company in 1960, several years before paper dresses became popular. Bayer, a mechanical engineer in his twenties, helped Mars – in conjunction with Kimberly Clark Corporation and JP Stevens – develop a prototype disposable paper undergarment for the military. Unfortunately, the paper prototype didn’t hold up to the constant marching required of troops deployed in Vietnam and began to flake off, leaving a literal paper trail in their wake.

So Bayer and another Mars executive, Ron Bard, turned to developing fashion on paper. The paper fabric used by Mars was known as Kaycel, which was made of 93% cellulose and 7% nylon.

Unable to afford to hire a clothing designer, Bayer brought in his wife, Audie Bayer, to create the line. “I would take a picture of a dress and cut out a piece of wrapping paper and glue it on. And I was saying to Bob, ‘Here. Do this,” Audie said in a 2007 interview. “It was the perfect time,” she continued. “You had no professional who knew what he was doing. Bob didn’t know enough to argue with me.

Bob and Audie Bayer owned Mars Manufacturing Co. of Asheville, makers of paper dresses in the mid-1960s.

Audie’s design sensibilities have driven the brand to be the number one paper dress producer in the United States. At the height of demand, Mars shipped more than 80,000 paper garments for Waste Basket Boutique each week, including long dresses, jumpsuits, coats, singlets, ponchos and even men’s swimwear. He handled not only individual orders, but also large orders from department stores like Macy’s, Sears, Lord & Taylor and JC Penney.

More than a utilitarian garment, paper dresses have become popular at parties. In December 1966, The Charlotte News reported on a “posh paper ball in Hartford, Connecticut, where all the female guests wore paper. Some ball gowns were from Mars, others were thousand-dollar creations from famous designers.

Mars also marketed a paint-your-own dress, which for $6 came with a watercolor set. According to The Charlotte News, “The hostesses send the dress and the watercolors to the guests with the invitations. Each guest decorates her dress and the prizes go to the most imaginative. The article continued: “A hostess in Asheville asked each wife to put on one of the plain white dresses, then the husbands painted designs on them.

An advertisement for paper dresses in the Santa Maria Times from March 25, 1966.

During this boom period, Mars Manufacturing predicts “a day (not far off) when most of us will wear disposable clothing at least some of the time. It may be packaged in tear-off rolls, like plastic bags. paper.

But by 1969 the market had changed. As the environmental movement gained momentum, the popularity of disposable fast fashion declined and hundreds of thousands of paper dresses went from the closet to the wastebasket to the landfill without any new orders. have not passed.

Mars Manufacturing cut losses and shifted production to disposable industrial and surgical garments. Bob Bayer recalled in 2007, “That paper dress thing helped us get into those other areas. He must have exhausted himself at some point.

Anne Chesky-Smith

Anne Chesky Smith is executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association in Asheville.

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