Paper clothes were about to be the future of fashion. I only had one problem: it was too cheap.

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Clothing was not born as a tool to combat the cold. It was born, fundamentally, as ornamentation and form of individualization. Beyond the fact that we have finally used clothes to be less cold, its main reason for being has more to do with the fight for status and for feeling unique and special (or being part of a unique and special clan).

For this reason, when we lost our hair, we walked for thousands of years totally naked, without any need for clothing. Thus, the clothes did not appear as a consequence of this hair loss, but much later, as suggested by the appearance of the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus), which clings to tissues and not to hair.

From head louse to body louse

The body louse first described by Carlos Linnaeus in the tenth edition of Natural System (1735), diverged from the head louse approximately 107,000 years ago, coinciding with the time when humans began to wear clothes and thus providing a new habitat for the head louse, from which the body louse evolved.

However, geneticist Alan Rogers has determined that the skin color of hominids changed from the pale pink of chimpanzees to darker tones (with a higher degree of protection to ultraviolet degrees) about 1.2 million years ago. That is, for a million years, the human being lived without hair or clothes.

Clothing

Distinction, more than protection.

Our ancestors’ way of surviving the cold and furless was by fire, as ethnographic observations of hunter-gatherer cultures also suggest. As Cody Cassidy abounds in it, in his book Who ate the first oyster?: The pioneers behind the greatest innovations in historywhen Ferdinand Magellan bordered the coast of South America, the Yaganes and Alacalufes tribes lived without clothes:

To keep warm, they smeared their bodies with animal fat and lit large bonfires, to the point that sailors called that place Tierra del Fuego.

Clothing, then, is not an anthropological human universal. There are those who use it, and those who don’t. It was not essential to survive. However, paintings, tattoos, earrings or body modifications are human universals. In other words, clothing would only be a form of adornment, a form of identity, like bracelets or necklaces.

Clothing was born from the same source of human desire as beadwork. Is a prestige technology. It is used to attribute status. Like the jewels. In fact, it is more than likely that mankind’s earliest clothing items were impractical, much like a tie or heels are today.

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It was over time that, after being adopted by more and more individuals, clothing was able to evolve into a extra protection to conquer more northern latitudes. From then on, although fashion had practical functions, above all it served to form part of a clan, to show status, as would happen later. The dress as a reflection of a certain social position and also, often, as an object of sexual differentiation

This is how the increasingly extravagant fashions, brands, trends, luxury, ostentation would be born. Because clothing is still like wigs or makeup. And fashion, according to Georg Simmel (Fashion Philosophy, 1905), is “a continuous emulation of the prestigious groups”, in the sense that the lower classes seek to emulate the higher ones. Which, also, explains the little success that the fashion of making paper clothes had.

Cheap but not exclusive clothes: mistake

The Scott Paper Company would market, in 1966, a paper garment that cost one dollar. This American company already produced toilet paper, baby wipes, napkins, paper towels and other products. Apparently Scott had a coupon program and the paper dress was a design to promote them*.

Scott marketed two styles of sleeveless shift dresses made from a new cellulose-based nonwoven material called Dura-Weve. For the cost of one dollar + 25 cents shipping, along with a coupon clipping, anyone could get a paper dress in the mail. At first, it was a complete success. In just eight months, it sold half a million units, which was quite a milestone considering that the garments were torn, they were not washable, they were flammable and, in addition, when they got wet, they faded.

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The biggest asset of paper clothing was its low price. So paper clothing continued on, to the point where various designers and companies jumped on the bandwagon. “It seems that paper clothes are here to stay”, reported Magazine Time in March 1967.

Campbell’s Soup Company, from the cans that Andy Warhol had used until they became a pop icon, designed a paper dress. The Mars Manufacturing Company of Asheville, North Carolina, was the nation’s leading paper clothing manufacturer, selling eighty thousand paper dresses a week. Their prices could not be more seductive, as Mark Kurlansky details in his book Paper: Pages Through History:

A basic shift dress was $1.75. Bell-bottom overalls, a very popular item of clothing in the 1960s, $4. Aprons were $1.35 and men’s paper vests were $1.99. Another company, Sterling Paper Products, put out a zebra-print pantsuit for $7.50, a maternity dress for $8, and even a wedding dress for $15. There were also 40-cent girl’s dresses.

Little by little, more resistant paper garments were made, which were also resistant to water and even to fire, since they were made of seven percent nylon. Paper clothing was successful, in addition to its price, because it was a throwaway, disposable fashion. However, in the late 1970s, the fashion for paper dresses completely decayed. Even the US Army’s plans to make disposable combat uniforms out of paper, or tents out of paper, or even paper parachutes that would be easily destroyed on landing were not carried out.

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As the novelty appeal of paper clothing faded, its drawbacks became more apparent: they were generally ill-fitting and uncomfortable, their garish colors could fade, they were often flammable, and they eventually ended up as waste. By 1968, the paper clothes had disappeared of the market as if it had never existed. Yet the paper dresses of the 1960s also continue to inspire contemporary fashion designers, including Yeohlee and Vivienne Tam, who have sometimes incorporated paper into their designs.

Making paper dresses was a trade to show the talent of seamstresses, mostly women, in Spain in the 1950s. Since 1963 is celebrated in Mollerussa, Spain, a paper dress-making contest, around December 13, Saint Lucia’s day, patron saint of seamstresses. A museum founded in 2009 houses the pieces contest winners

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In addition to the technical problems associated with wearing paper clothes, it had been forgotten that people dress not only from a utilitarian or economic point of view, but, above all, to signal their status or social class. Paper clothes were so accessible that everyone could have them. Not to mention that a greater awareness of the environmental impact made throwaway clothing an unacceptable expense.

As we can see, the success of paper on clothing was a resounding success due to its rare and original nature, but it betrayed an important human need: ostentation. Its price and format were not appropriate for an increasingly wealthy social class. In 1899, when the sociologist Thorstein Veblen published the Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen suggested thatfor the leisure class, the ostentation of luxury, even if it is immaterial, has a concrete function of social affirmation.

The knowledge of dead languages ​​or the latest fashions in clothing are part of that class of luxuries. As in past times it was dressing. If this were not the case, we would still live essentially naked, just as our ancestors did when they lost their covering of fur.

Clothing was not born as a tool to combat the cold. It was born, fundamentally, as ornamentation and form of…

Clothing was not born as a tool to combat the cold. It was born, fundamentally, as ornamentation and form of…

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